The Prime Minister's Choice

This hostility to the legal system within the political system begs a reminder of a fundamental truth: The court is one of the fortresses of Israeli democracy.

Ehud Olmert spoke with great eloquence at the Knesset on Monday, in a session marking its 58th birthday. The prime minister called on the country's law enforcement bodies to never stop investigating and attempting to repair the world. He also, however, urged them to do their job in good faith and integrity, purified of all atmospheric toxins and attempts at inappropriate influence.

While Olmert was speaking to the Knesset, his associates were reporting to the media that he was searching to fill the empty justice portfolio with a person who could cope with the increasing influence of the Supreme Court. They later amended their comments, explaining that the appropriate candidate in the eyes of the prime minister was an independent jurist of high professional stature, and not necessarily someone with an oppositional approach to the highest court in the land.

Anyone with eyes in his head can see that the factors leading to Olmert's choice of Prof. Daniel Friedmann as the new justice minister were not "purified of all atmospheric toxins and attempts at inappropriate influence." Olmert looked for someone who could meet his expectations, someone who could clip the wings of the Supreme Court. His view is shared by more than a few politicians, the view that under former chief justice Aharon Barak the Supreme Court exceeded its authority, encroaching on the territory of the Knesset and the cabinet. This grievance adds to the strong feeling of Olmert and his closest circles that the law enforcement system (together with the media) is paralyzing the government and harming the stature of the political system as a result of the large number of investigations against them. According to this argument, a "gang of law enforcers" is waging a McCarthyist witch hunt against the country's leaders, driving capable figures out of public life and deterring quality people from joining it.

This hostility to the legal system within the political system begs a reminder of a fundamental truth: The court is one of the fortresses of Israeli democracy. It is constructed upon the principles of excellence and professionalism. So far it has been free of political infection and for this reason has succeeded in cementing its position as the ne plus ultra, which defines society's values and bequeathes it to the generations to follow. The courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, obtained their reputation by dint of the personal qualities of their judges. As in a relay race, the judges pass on the heritage of framing verdicts that until now has guaranteed the democratic nature of the state and its ambition - its stated ambition, at least - of guaranteeing human rights and implementing the values of justice. This process has succeeded due to the ethos created by the founders of the court and nurtured by their heirs, and due to the mechanism for appointing judges. The latter has created the conditions for appointing individuals for their abilities and not their social or political affiliations. In the past several years, opposition has been voiced about this formula, on the grounds that the Supreme Court should reflect the diverse face of society. In other words, these new voices want to impose upon the Supreme Court the same considerations and practices that determine the face of the political system.

The conditions have been created for implementing this politicization of the legal system, as a result of the junction at which the state is now standing. There are five empty seats on the Supreme Court, and the new justice minister will play a decisive role in filling them.

Even when one considers the weaknesses that have been exposed in the performance of the court, even when one is aware of the changes that the expectations and values of Israeli society have undergone - the status of the highest judicial instance must not be weakened. The public positions of Prof. Friedmann presage a confrontation between the government and the court that threatens to undermine the image of the latter and impair the public trust in it.