Peretz: Labor Won't Let Friedmann Limit High Court's Authority to Overturn Laws

Labor Chairman Amir Peretz told Minister of Justice Daniel Friedmann that Labor will oppose his efforts to curtail the constitutional authority of the Supreme Court. The two met in the Knesset yesterday.

According to sources, Friedmann's declared intention to curb the role of the Supreme Court in constitutional matters contravenes the government's official guidelines.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has already expressed his opposition to Friedmann's initiative, and Peretz said he would back him.

Senior Labor officials said yesterday that Peretz may initiate a serious crisis in the coalition over Friedmann's initiative, because this may serve him in rallying support during the party's primaries in May by embarrassing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Peretz may take advantage of this situation to pull Labor out of the coalition and surrender the Defense Ministry, a portfolio that has burdened him in the internal party struggle for primacy against challengers Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon.

Friedmann has sponsored two bills calling for restrictions on the Supreme Court and limiting the tenure of court presidents to seven years. Labor considers both steps to be contrary to the party's traditional views and to contravene the government's basic political guidelines.

In Labor they point to a "golden opportunity" for Peretz to restore his position in the party and raise the issue in a way that will rally the party around him.

According to article 40 in the government guidelines, signed by all coalition partners, "the government will preserve the esteemed position and breadth of functions and authorities of the Supreme Court and will oppose any change that may undermine it or the way judges are appointed in the judiciary."

This article was included in the basic guidelines following a Labor request during the coalition negotiations in April 2006.

Mazuz, who usually includes his comments on the agenda of the cabinet meetings, which are then distributed to all ministers prior to the meeting, added last week an unusual comment. Sunday's cabinet meeting commemorated the 15th anniversary of the death of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Mazuz opted to include passages from "the well-known speech of Begin from 1951."

Mazuz wrote that he felt the need to highlight from that speech elements regarding the appropriate role of the court in the State of Israel, which the attorney general said "had not lost in importance or relevance 55 years later."

"We should not be satisfied with the mere independence of the court but we must consider the supremacy of the court as our cause," Begin wrote. "The supremacy of the court will be expressed by the fact that independent judges will be given the authority to rule whether the laws are within the bounds of the Basic Law or contradict the rights of the citizens."

Warning against the dangers posed by a ruling majority that has no checks, Begin wrote that "only through the supremacy of the court, in other words, the determining of civil liberties as a basic law or a supreme law, and the granting to the body of justices the right to cancel the validity of a law that is in opposition the basic law and civil liberties" can freedom be safeguarded.

The Justice Ministry ha s refused to comment on Mazuz's statements.

"I like the quote," Minister of Social Affairs Isaac Herzog (Labor) said yesterday. "I am never opposed to the historic perspective of our past leaders, and it is particularly symbolic that these are statements made by Menachem Begin, who was identified as the leader of the right, and these quotations are of high moral value."

Other Labor ministers expressed their vociferous opposition to Friedmann's initiative during a meeting of the Knesset Constitution committee on Sunday.