Supreme Court President Decries 'Attempt to Threaten' Judiciary With Proposed Knesset Probe

Failed effort to set up panel on judges was 'an ugly wave that has hit bottom,' President Esther Hayut says in a letter to court personnel, arguing it was aimed at 'harming judicial independence'

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Supreme Court President Esther Hayut
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut on the bench, May 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said on Thursday that last week's failed effort in the Knesset to establish a parliamentary committee of inquiry on justices was aimed at "slamming the judicial branch" and was the result of ulterior motives.

In a letter to the country's judges and to the staff of the court system, Hayut called the shelved proposal "an attempt to threaten us and to harm judicial independence and the public's trust in the courts."

"In addition to the wave of the coronavirus, the judicial branch also has to deal with another ugly wave that has hit bottom, with a proposal to establish a committee to examine 'conflicts of interest' of senior members of the judiciary," Hayut stated.

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The Israeli judiciary, she wrote, "is not seeking to sweep anything under the rug. It is subject to oversight, attentive to criticism, and works to correct what requires correcting and to increase the transparency of its work."

Last week, by a vote of 54 to 43, the Knesset voted down a proposal introduced by Bezalel Smotrich of the right-wing Yamina party to establish the parliamentary committee of inquiry. In a reference to media coverage regarding Supreme Court justices' alleged conflicts of interest in cases that they had handled, Smotrich wrote that "in recent weeks a series of investigative reports have been published revealing an unacceptable reality of major conflict of interests among Supreme Court judges."

Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich
Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, speaking in the Knesset chamber, July 8, 2020.Credit: Adina Wolman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office

His proposal stated that the committee would look into whether the alleged conflicts exist solely in the Supreme Court or in lower courts as well.

The Knesset vote on Smotrich's proposal went forward after coalition whip Miki Zohar of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party announced that the party would support the proposal. In the end, however, Netanyahu and a number of other Likud lawmakers failed to show up for the vote.

The Kahol Lavan party, which is a member of the governing coalition and has made the independence of the judiciary a prominent part of its political platform, opposed the measure and claimed that Netanyahu had worked behind the scenes to establish the committee.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Kahol Lavan tweeted at the time that "Israel has a million unemployed and every day more than a thousand new coronavirus cases are diagnosed, and there are those who find it urgent to tear down the rule of law. I will not allow it."

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) expressed support for the initiative, saying "The days when the Knesset was afraid to criticize the courts are over." He called the proposal an effort at "effective parliamentary oversight."

Last month the court released a list of conflicts that the Supreme Court justices has disclosed that would prevent them from hearing cases related to those on the list. The decision to release the list was made by Hayut after journalist Kalman Liebskind published a series of articles on the matter in the Maariv daily. The list had also been released a number of times in the past as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests.

Supreme Court Justice George Karra heard a petition last year against the demolition of a Muslim burial site in Jaffa, even though the petitioner, the Muslim council in Jaffa, was included on his list of possible conflicts of interest.

The spokeswoman for the Israel Judicial Authority said on Karra’s behalf that he heard the urgent peition as the justice on duty at the time due to "the urgency of the matter." The spokeswoman added that "a temporary order was issued on the matter. At the same time, the justice transferred the case to a panel on which he did not sit.”

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