Justice Minister-designate: My Powers Are Limited

The cabinet unanimously approved the appointment of a harsh critic of the Supreme Court, Professor Daniel Friedmann, as the new justice minister last night. The appointment will be brought to the Knesset for approval today.

Friedmann is also a fierce critic of the rest of the legal system, including the police and prosecution, and has criticized Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. He published an article in Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday in which he blasted the investigation, trial and conviction of former justice minister Haim Ramon for forcibly kissing a female soldier.

As a result, his appointment shocked many in the legal establishment. However, others praised it - including Mazuz, who said that Friedmann is one of Israel's "most important jurists" and his appointment "lends glory to the state of Israel."

At yesterday's cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised that Friedmann's appointment would ensure "the protection of law enforcement agencies and, first and foremost, the honor and status of the Supreme Court."

Noting that Friedmann, an Israel Prize laureate in law, is considered one of the country's foremost legal scholars, Olmert added that the appointment would bolster the war on crime and corruption and further "the reforms we want to make in the legal system, such as significantly shortening [legal] proceedings" - including both the length of police investigations and the time it takes for cases to wend their way through court.

Speaking to Haaretz after the cabinet vote, Friedmann said he does not necessarily intend to implement all the reforms he has advocated in newspaper articles over the years. Among other things, he has advocated canceling the Supreme Court's power to overturn Knesset legislation, establishing a constitutional court, changing the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee to reduce the number of justices serving on it, and barring the court from intervening in diplomatic and security issues.

"People have to understand that the justice minister's power is limited," he explained to Haaretz. "There are things that it is possible to do and things that it is impossible to do. There are also things that other people convince you don't need to be done."

Before doing anything, he added, he wants to meet with a wide variety of jurists and legal officials to hear their suggestions. "I'm open to persuasion," he said.

Friedmann noted that he will also have to deal with many issues that he has never addressed in his articles, such as budgets and manpower. He will, therefore, have to set priorities and decide the most urgent issues.

While Olmert decided several days ago he wanted to appoint a leading jurist from outside the political system to the post, sources in Kadima said he was debating until the last minute between Friedmann and Professor Amnon Rubinstein, who is also a top legal scholar, as well as a former Meretz MK and minister. The balance finally tilted in Friedmann's favor, the sources said, because it seemed

that Rubinstein was not very interested in the job. In fact, they noted, it was Rubinstein himself who first suggested Friedmann, when Olmert first approached Rubinstein about the job.

The sources added that Olmert made the final decision only after a meeting with Friedmann at which, they said, he became convinced that he is not planning to make war on the legal establishment.

Responding to criticism of the appointment, a Kadima source said: "Not everything has to be monolithic and uniform. The legal system needs checks and balances, and this is one. There is a great deal of criticism of the legal system's behavior, and Friedmann shares this criticism... The judicial branch has swallowed the legislative branch."

However, they added, Olmert does not back Friedmann's ideas on curtailing the Supreme Court's power to overturn laws or establishing a constitutional court, and has always opposed such proposals in the Knesset.

Friedmann's appointment encountered one unexpected source of opposition in the cabinet: two of the four Shas ministers boycotted last night's vote after learning that Friedmann once accepted the symbolic, 120th slot on the militantly secular Shinui Party's Knesset list.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai also charged that Friedmann has written articles attacking religion, the state's Jewish identity and the conduct of the rabbinical courts. Nevertheless, Shas sources said, the party is willing to give him a chance, and as long as he refrains from anti-religious remarks while in office, no coalition crisis will ensue.