Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is speaking from both sides of his mouth.
A few days ago, after newly-appointed Justice Minister Amir Ohana claimed the government is not necessarily obliged to respect Supreme Court verdicts, Netanyahu slapped him down. On his Twitter account, he wrote, “Court decisions are binding on everyone.”
But since the inconclusive general election in April, Netanyahu reportedly has been discussing a plan to drastically curb the powers of the Supreme Court to secure immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases against him.
As Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz said recently, Netanyahu cannot be permitted to push through far-reaching constitutional changes to serve his personal interests now that he faces the bleak prospect of indictment on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
To no one’s surprise, Netanyahu’s apparent machinations to give Knesset members the authority to reconfigure laws that the Supreme Court has struck down have elicited a backlash.
The Supreme Court’s former chief justice, Dorit Beinisch, has said that while the legal system should be open to reforms, they should not be driven by personal interests. As she put it last month, “Be careful before you try to destroy … an impressive system that was built over years. You don’t carry out reforms without substantive consideration and evaluation.”
In an implicit reference to Netanyahu, she added, “The need to evade trial cannot drive this broad reform — it’s unacceptable.”
Appropriately enough, Beinisch took Likud parliamentarian Miki Zohar to task for saying that the judiciary will soon be “irrelevant.” Politicians like Zohar, she correctly noted, are spreading “nonsense and lies” about the justice system so as to discredit it.
Dan Meridor, a former minister of justice and a long-time member of the Likud, has also issued a warning about Netanyahu’s “dangerous anti-democratic idea” to emasculate the high court and thereby do away with Israel’s system of checks and balances. If he succeeds in this misbegotten venture, Meridor predicted, Netanyahu could well turn Israel into a tinpot dictatorship.
Significantly, Meridor’s cri de coeur has been endorsed by two influential former Likud ministers, Benny Begin and Limor Livnat.
In the meantime, Ohana has rightly come under fire from Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut. She has accused him of leading Israel to “anarchy” with his suggestion that the court’s rulings can be safely ignored.
As she put it, “I take an extremely dim view of a justice minister who, on the day he is sworn in, chooses to share with us an unprecedented and irresponsible judicial world view according to which not all rulings handed out by courts should be honored.”
“In other words, any litigant can from now on — with the justice minister’s blessing — choose which verdict needs to be obeyed and which does not,” she declared. “With that world view, the path to anarchy, in which everyone does what they feel like, is short.”
Ohana has since clarified his position, saying he will respect Supreme Court decisions. But the damage has been done. He and Netanyahu have already indicated that their opinion of the Supreme Court is shaped by partisan political and personal considerations.
If Israel is to be a true democracy, the Supreme Court must continue to remain a staunchly independent institution totally free of crass political interference.