Israel's chief justice clashes with nationalists

AP News
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Posted: Dec 02, 2011 12:52 PM
Israel's chief justice clashes with nationalists

Israel's chief justice came under fire on Friday from members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition, after she went public with concerns that parliamentarians are trying to undercut the Supreme Court's authority.

The exchange reflects an increasingly charged atmosphere in Israeli politics around what government opponents say is a concerted effort to undermine Israeli democracy.

Hawkish members of Netanyahu's Likud party accuse the court of a liberal bias, while the court's defenders say that nationalists are attacking the independence of a key guardian of Israeli democracy.

In the most recent development, Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch made a public statement attacking her critics, a departure from the general understanding that senior members of the judiciary remain as much as possible above politics. Likud lawmakers accused her of inappropriate behavior.

"I am saddened by the fact that Beinisch, who has long spoken in favor of the separation of powers, has shown such a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy and forgotten that the public elected its representatives to parliament so that they would legislate," governing coalition chairman Zeev Elkin said.

"According to the chief justice, it would seem that the Supreme Court ought to replace the legislature or at least serve as its censor," Elkin said.

The day before, Beinisch had made a rare public statement at a law conference, in which she accused politicians of trying to delegitimize the court.

"This is a delegitimization campaign headed by several politicians, lawmakers and even government ministers, who propagate false and misleading information that has reached the point of incitement against the courts, its judges and its judicial undertakings," she said, choking back emotion.

Although she did not mention anyone by name, it was clear that Beinisch was referring to a series of recent legislative initiatives backed by Elkin and others in the nationalist coalition in power since 2009.

Earlier this week, parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill that would change the makeup of the panel assigned to select Supreme Court justices _ a bill opponents see as trying to stack the committee, currently made up of judges, lawyers and politicians, in the government's favor.

Another bill, which Netanyahu says he opposes but was promoted by members of his Likud Party, would let parliament veto Supreme Court candidates.

Yet another bill, which would restrict petitions to the Supreme Court by private groups, was rejected by a ministerial committee Sunday.

Also, according to media reports, Elkin and his allies are working behind the scenes to ensure that the next round of supreme court appointees includes a West Bank settler or a conservative or religious jurist.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich came to Beinisch's defense, saying that her "direct and public appeal constitutes a rare warning sign."

"There are politicians among us who are prepared to topple the foundations of the rule of law, while fulminating and inciting the public," she said.

Adding to the tension, Beinisch's term is set to expire in a few months, and there is considerable agitation over whether a more conservative justice will ascend to the powerful position.

Israel's Supreme Court has been widely seen as a lynchpin of liberal democracy in Israel, and over the years it has often ruled against the government, maintained a fierce independence, and generally won respect from rights groups, the public in Israel and observers around the world.

The proposed legislation involving the Supreme Court is part of a broader trend that critics assail as an attack on democracy itself.

Foreign governments have been especially critical of proposed legislation to dramatically limit foreign funding of non-governmental organizations _ a measure that would largely affect dovish groups and so far has been put on hold.

On Monday, Netanyahu vowed to uphold Israel's democracy.

"As long as I am prime minister, Israel will continue to be a strong democracy, an exemplary democracy. Nobody will tell anybody what to think, what to write, what to investigate, what to broadcast," he told Likud lawmakers. Hours later, he nonetheless voted for proposed amendments to a new libel law that critics charge will muzzle investigative reporters.

In an editorial Friday, the Haaretz daily called on Netanyahu to end the "antidemocratic witch hunt" and accused the premier of "an ill-conceived attempt to exploit his parliamentary majority to undermine Israeli democracy."