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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The battle lines used to be very clear. On one side stood the forces of darkness - the haredim, the settlers, the corrupt politicians, all those who wanted to destroy the power of the judiciary. Arrayed against them was the army of enlightenment - the judges and prosecutors, the fighting press, academia and leading lights of the Left, the old elite. At their head, the knight in shining armor, Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, ready to force back the barbarians at the gate.
The showdown lasted for the 11 years that Barak and his judicial activism philosophy ruled the Supreme Court, with a weak Knesset and executive branch proving no match for the well-connected, influential system, with its sense of purpose and united front.
Attempts to overhaul the system, to make it more representative and accessible, were warded off. Ambitious justice ministers were suborned or subverted: Yaakov Neeman was suddenly indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice and forced to resign, Yossi Beilin became the target of malicious innuendo, and now Haim Ramon.
Dark mutterings were heard of a conspiracy of the "law and order mafia," though nothing could be proved. The fact remained that it was a brave minister who dared defy the old guard, and the likes of Tzahi Hanegbi, Meir Sheetrit and Yosef Lapid toed the line.
Roni Bar-On knew what he was doing on Sunday evening when he notified Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he was taking himself out of the running for the job. He already learned the hard way, 10 years ago, when the uproar caused by his appointment as attorney-general, a lawyer with political connections and a quintessential outsider, forced him to relinquish the post after two days. Rather than go up once more against the vindictive system, he preferred to stay at the Interior Ministry.
Does this mean that once again the Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry hierarchy have won the day? Not if you look at the candidates currently being mentioned for the job. The three leading names on the list are all establishment figures, proud sons of the system, but with one significant difference: Over the last few years, each of them has turned, voicing criticism of the way things are being handled, reserving their deepest scorn for the new high priestess of the legal cult, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch.
The most senior of the prospective candidates is former education (and telecommunications and energy) minister, president of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and founder of the Tel Aviv University Law School, Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, and you don't get more establishment than that. But Rubinstein recently has emerged as one of the legal system's most bitter critics.
Only two weeks ago at the Herzliya Conference, he attacked Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz for considering limiting Olmert's powers due to the investigations against him, warning against the "rule of the unelected officials."
This wasn't the first time Rubinstein had launched such attacks. He was also critical of Mazuz's decision to press charges against Ramon, and last year he suggested that upon Barak's retirement, former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar should be called back into service for two years, to allow the judiciary to recover. Though he did not mention her by name, this was a clear expression of no-confidence in Barak's successor, Beinisch.
Another critic of Beinisch being considered for the job is Prof. Daniel Friedman. Like Rubinstein, he is also a former dean of Tel Aviv University Law School and an Israel Prize laureate. Beinisch earned his enmity in 2003 when she organized a crusade against the appointment to the Supreme Court of Friedman's close friend and colleague, Prof. Nili Cohen.
Ever since, Friedman has regularly published articles in the newspapers attacking the Supreme Court's leadership and calling for an overhaul of the system by which the justices have an effective veto over the appointment of new judges and the post of court president goes to the most veteran justice.
The third candidate, Boaz Okon, also became an implacable enemy of Beinisch's after she blocked Cohen's appointment, his mentor at law school. Okon was the wunderkind of the judiciary, Barak's closest prot g with a meteoric career. He was on the magistrate's court at the age of 37, rapidly rising to Supreme Court registrar, district court judge and director-general of the national court system, a job he left immediately after Beinisch's elevation five months ago.
If indeed any of these candidates is chosen by Olmert and agree to take over the Justice Ministry, it will put the government on a collision course with the Supreme Court and the Attorney General's Office. Unlike their predecessors, the old establishment will find it much more difficult to thwart Rubinstein, Friedman or Okon; they now the system too well, they are of the system.
It will be extremely difficult to unearth something on one of these three that will force them to resign, nor is there any chance of them being in awe of the regality of the Supreme Court. They already have a clear idea of its worth and of how they would radically change the court. The first item on the new minister's agenda will be the appointment of five new justices to Beinisch's new court. These appointments are the most basic tool for Beinisch to stamp her imprimatur on the court.
Dorit Beinisch will be 63 in three weeks. By law she has seven more years to rule the Supreme Court, more than enough time to form her own unique legacy. But if one of the three leading candidates becomes Justice Minister, they will do everything in their power to block her from achieving that legacy.