Sometimes He's Right

If the prime minister's priorities are flawed and bad, the public will always have the option of changing the government. But the court is not an alternative.

The justice minister and prime minister's repeated attacks against the Supreme Court president reinforce the sense that their objective is to undermine and weaken the Supreme Court. To this end, when the Supreme Court is required to rule on a case pertaining to Ehud Olmert - either the Winograd Committee or the Bank Leumi privatization deal - its pronouncement will then lack legitimacy before the public.

Still, there are instances in which Olmert is right to criticize the Supreme Court. The court is an essential part of our democracy and has proved over the years to be the ultimate defense of the individual's basic rights before the arbitrary power of the state. It must thus be protected and strengthened. However, this is not enough to avoid criticism - when it's appropriate.

Last weekend, Olmert assailed the Supreme Court ruling on the matter of reinforcing schools in Sderot against missile attacks. "The court will not decide where reinforcement will be made and how much will be made," he said. The State of Israel cannot adopt such a policy, Olmert added. And he is right.

In June 2006, Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided that 16 elementary and eight secondary schools in Sderot and the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip would be reinforced against missile attacks. This was accomplished in accordance with a plan presented to him by the Home Front Command on the construction of safe areas. The Sderot Parents-Teachers Association was not satisfied with the decision and filed a petition at the High Court of Justice against the government - and won. Dorit Beinisch, who headed the panel of justices, ruled that the safe areas method did not offer sufficient protection and that the argument of limited funding was unacceptable. As such, the court said, the government must immediately reinforce each classroom against missile attack.

Obviously it would be best to reinforce every classroom, kindergarten and home in Sderot. But that is precisely why we have a government. The government must define priorities in light of the many demands on the state and budgetary restraints. The government must decide on civil servant wage supplements, Israel Defense Forces budget hikes and the extent to which cuts in funding for education, health care, welfare and national infrastructures will be made.

Protecting Sderot is only one of the state's many responsibilities. But the Supreme Court has no budgetary limits. It can always be good and generous in distributing money - money it does not have. But when the public coffers are spent and the economy falls into a crisis, the prime minister is the one who will have to pay for failure, not the court. The court can interfere, but only when a policy is extremely unreasonable - which, in this case, it is not.

This is not the first time the court has excessively interfered with the executive role. This occurred recently when the Knesset accepted the Nahari bill, which obliges municipal authorities to grant the same budget to public education institutions and ultra-Orthodox educational institutions - that do not abide by state education guidelines. Education Minister Yuli Tamir announced that, due to a lack in funding, she would cut the public education budget to make the necessary adjustments required by the law. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the state should only equate the budgets for the two sets of educational institutions if it could increase ultra-Orthodox schools' budgets. But, what should the ministry do if it lacks sufficient funds? The court had no answer for this.

Another example from the recent past: In January 2004, a panel of justices, headed by Dalia Dorner, tried to establish "a minimum standard for dignified human existence." This would oblige the state to provide its citizens with a minimum consumption package, under any circumstances. But what would happen if there were an economic crisis, or a security crisis, and the state would have to make cuts to save the economy from crashing? This is what happened in 2003, when the economy stood before an abyss and severe cuts were made in wages and welfare support. If a "minimum standard" were in place then, it would have been impossible to implement the measures Benjamin Netanyahu introduced to rescue the economy. The economy would then have fallen into a deep hole and the citizenry would have experienced an even harsher reality. Sometimes the political leadership must make sacrifices if it is to save the nation.

If the prime minister's priorities are flawed and bad, the public will always have the option of changing the government. But the court is not an alternative. It must allow a political leader to fulfill his role: establishing the state's priorities.