The gloves are not just off, they have been tossed out the window.
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked let loose massive salvos against each other’s rival camps at a conference in Eilat on Tuesday.
Quoting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to judges at a swearing in ceremony 18 months ago when he emphasized the need to defend judicial independence, Hayut asked rhetorically, “What has changed?”
The Supreme Court president attacked both the specific initiatives being considered by the incoming coalition government that would reduce the authority of the judicial branch, as well as what she called “extremely inappropriate” verbiage being used to deride the court.
Not to be outdone, Shaked, in her presumed last speech as justice minister, now that her political party did not make it into the Knesset, slammed the judicial branch for treating any reduction of its powers as anti-democratic.
The outgoing justice minister also attacked top former legal officials, Supreme Court chief justices and chief prosecutors, who in recent days called the incoming government’s new initiatives threats to democracy.
“The courts also need to be balanced and to have brakes applied” to them, she said.
While the picture is still unclear, the government has been considering new bills that would prevent the Supreme Court from ruling on Netanyahu’s bribery case while he is prime minister, and would limit the court’s authority to rule on a range of policy issues such as the migrants issue and changing the makeup or appointment process of the Supreme Court itself.
Israel Bar Association President Avi Himi backed Hayut and the Supreme Court, in a U-turn from the days of his predecessor, Efi Naveh, only a few months ago.
Naveh resigned as Israel Bar Association president in January in the wake of the “sex for judgeship” affair, for which he is under criminal investigation.
At the time, Lahav 433 – The National Crime Unit questioned Naveh and two other suspects, one of whom was Netanya Magistrate’s Court Judge Eti Karif, for involvement in a scheme of promoting judicial candidates in exchange for sexual favors.
Naveh is suspected of having sexual relationships with Karif and with a female lawyer whose husband is a magistrate’s court judge and was seeking promotion to become a district judge.
Unlike Naveh, who formed an alliance with Shaked that often went against the Supreme Court’s agenda, Himi has adamantly backed the court in all ongoing legal controversies.
He even organized a “crisis conference” last week of senior bar association lawyers to oppose efforts at reducing the Supreme Court’s authority.
Besides Himi, former chief justice Aharon Barak said last week that if the circumvention bill to limit the Supreme Court’s authority was passed with anti-democratic intentions while he was still sitting on the court, he would have resigned.
Barak explained that a major purpose of the court was to review the lawfulness of the decisions of other branches of government, and that if the court lost this power, there would be no purpose to continuing as a justice.
Despite the support for the judicial branch at the conference, most expectations are that Likud’s Yariv Levin will be the incoming justice minister.
Levin is a longtime critic of the judicial establishment, and has sought for years to reduce its authority to intervene against government and Knesset decisions.
Commentators differ on whether there are sufficient votes to reduce the court’s authority (though the chances seem higher than ever before), and whether the court would accept such a law or strike it down as an unconstitutional restriction of the power of judicial review.