Divided Panel Seeks to Name New Justices Amid Ongoing Stalemate

The long-standing political debate over the composition of justices in the Supreme Court threatens to keep seats vacant on Israel's top judicial court

Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit
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High Court justices in January.
High Court justices in January.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced on Tuesday that the Judicial Appointments Committee meeting, in which new Supreme Court justices were to be chosen, has been postponed amid disagreements between the commitee's members.

"Despite many efforts to reach an agreement on appointing justices in accordance with the demands of the law, they have not succeeded as of yet," Sa'ar said in the announcement. "As justice minister, I am aware of the responsibility placed on me to make a balanced choice that will shape the character of the highest court of justice in the coming years." But he cannot fulfill that responsibility with the current mindset of the committee members, he said. 

By law, a Supreme Court appointment needs approval from seven of the panel’s nine members.

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The committee urgently needs to replace justices Menachem Mazuz and Hanan Melcer, both of whom have retired in recent months. It also requires replacements for Neal Hendel and George Karra, who will retire next year, but that could also wait for a subsequent meeting.

Sa’ar is working hard to get the committee’s members to agree on a deal that would enable at least some new appointments. On Monday, he held meetings on this issue with the other members, most critically Supreme Court President Esther Hayut. 

One major issue is a longstanding disagreement over how much the court should intervene in cabinet and Knesset decisions. Two committee members, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) and MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism), strongly favor the appointment of less interventionist justices (known in Israeli parlance as conservatives). Sa’ar apparently seeks to balance the appointments, with some being more activist and others less so. But the three Supreme Court justices on the committee, the two Bar Association representatives and MK Efrat Rayten (Labor) all prefer the appointment of more activist justices, which can be considered more liberal. 

One leading candidate is Tel Aviv District Court Judge Chaled Kabub, who is expected to be chosen as Karra’s replacement to ensure that the court still has an Arab justice. If appointed, Kabub would be the court’s first Muslim justice.

Hayut is also pushing for another Tel Aviv District Court judge, Ruth Ronnen. Like Kabub, she falls on the activist side of the spectrum, as does a third leading candidate, Jerusalem District Court Judge Gila Kanfy Steinitz (who is married to Likud MK Yuval Steinitz). But Shaked and Rothman adamantly refuse to have three of the four new justices be liberals.

Another obstacle is the Bar Association representatives’ demand that one of the new justices be a private-sector lawyer. Their proposed candidates are Natan Simchony, a veteran defense attorney, and Yaacov Sharvit of the Herzog, Fox & Neeman law firm.

One possible compromise discussed on Monday would be to appoint Tel Aviv District Court Judge Gershon Gontovnik, who spent years as a private-sector lawyer before joining the court four and a half years ago, instead of a currently practicing lawyer. But Gontovnik also belongs to the activist camp, so Sa’ar, Shaked and Rothman are unlikely to agree to his appointment on top of Kabub and Ronnen.

Altogether, there are 24 candidates for the four open slots. Of these, 12 are district court judges. The rest include private-sector lawyers, academics, a former military advocate general and a former chief public defender. 

There are secular and religious people, conservatives and liberals. A third are women, one is Arab and two belong to the LGBT community.

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