First Arab Muslim, Mizrahi woman appointed to Supreme Court

The Israeli Supreme Court is closer than ever to a conservative majority.

 THE SUPREME Court, Jerusalem: Critiques from Right and Left. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
THE SUPREME Court, Jerusalem: Critiques from Right and Left.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The Judicial Selection Committee appointed four new justices to the Supreme Court on Monday, reordering the 15-justice body that sits atop the judicial branch.

The four are Judge Khaled Kabub, Judge Ruth Ronen, Judge Gila Kanfei-Steinitz and private-sector lawyer Yechiel Kasher. Kabub is the first Arab Muslim appointed to the Supreme Court. Kanfei-Steinitz, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz’s wife, is the first female judge of Sephardi descent.

Kanfei-Steinitz and Kasher are both viewed as moderate conservatives, ensuring Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has placed his stamp on the judiciary and moving it slightly to the Right again, given that three of the four justices being replaced were affiliated with the activist or moderate-activist wings.

Ronen was the main pick of Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and is expected to follow her moderate-activist approach.

Kabub has spent most of his career handling economic crime issues and has less well-known constitutional views.

 Khaled Kabuv and Ruth Ronen. (credit: JUDICIAL AUTHORITY) Khaled Kabuv and Ruth Ronen. (credit: JUDICIAL AUTHORITY)

He is replacing Justice George Kara to fill the “Arab-Israeli seat” on the court and is expected to be somewhere on the moderate-activist spectrum.

Kabub will also be the first permanent Muslim Arab-Israeli justice on the court. Prior Arab-Israeli justices were always Christian.

 Gila kanfei-steinitz and Yechiel Kasher (credit: JUDICIAL AUTHORITY, TOMER JACOBSON) Gila kanfei-steinitz and Yechiel Kasher (credit: JUDICIAL AUTHORITY, TOMER JACOBSON)

Despite attempts to derail Kabub’s candidacy over meetings he held with questionable Muslim activists, Sa’ar succeeded in pushing through his candidacy.

Though the court still has a slightly moderate-activist slant among its justices of eight to seven, the scorecard is now closer than ever, with two new justices joining conservatives Noam Sohlberg, David Mintz, Yosef Elron, Alex Stein and moderate conservatives Yael Wilner and Yitzhak Amit.

With Hayut and moderate activist Anat Baron due to retire in 2023 – assuming Sa’ar replaces one of the two of them with a moderate conservative – the court will flip to a majority moderate conservative eight to seven for the first time in decades.

Despite the gradual change, committee member Religious Zionist MK Simcha Rothman voted against all four justices to express frustration with the process and that none of the 30 candidates he suggested, who have more strident conservative views, were selected. He and others from his camp also slammed the appointment of Kabub.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked only voted for moderate conservatives Kanfei-Steinitz and Kasher. She abstained on Kabub and voted against Ronen, whom she prevented from being appointed years ago when she was justice minister due to Ronen’s husband’s connection to some liberal causes.

The coalition’s majority center-left parties have so far seemed at peace with allowing Sa’ar to continue slowly moving the court to the Right, as long as the justices are not viewed as being tied to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a rare public letter response to a politician, Hayut fired back at Likud MK David Amsalem last Thursday, rejecting his claims of discrimination against Sephardim in top court appointments.

The day before, Amsalem insinuated to the Knesset plenum that Hayut racially discriminates against Mizrahim, descendants of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Of the four justices appointed, only Kanfei-Steinitz comes from a Sephardi background.

Most of the negotiations over the candidates revolved around right-wing versus left-wing issues, having a private-sector appointment, having an Arab-Israeli appointment and equal opportunity for women.

The new group checks most of those boxes even if it does not make a major change on the Sephardi diversity issue.

That said, the Supreme Court has had ethnically Sephardi justices, as do other court levels.

Amsalem seemed to call on Hayut to be more transparent with her feelings toward him.

“What is Justice Hayut on?” he asked. “Instead of writing nonsense [in her judicial opinions], why don’t you write, ‘Mr. Amsalem, I can’t stand you: not the Amsalems, and not the Machlufs.’”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Hayut wrote in a letter. “I wonder where this intense hatred comes from that brings you to say such harsh things.”

It is rare for a Supreme Court Justice to address a public official, especially in such a sharp manner.

Speaking at the Israel Bar Association conference on Monday, after cutting through large protests surrounding the conference against the new appointments, Hayut pushed back hard at criticism of the new justices.

She said attacks on the new justices had “no basis” and expressed special pride in Kabub as the first Muslim justice.

The new appointments were approved after several months of delay when Hayut, Sa’ar and the Israel Bar Association had agreed on three of four candidates.

Adding Kasher to the list appears to have solved the problem, as he was acceptable to both Sa’ar and Hayut and also checked the Bar Association box of having a private-sector lawyer on the court after multiple former justices with private-sector backgrounds retired.

The deal also came after the Bar Association succeeded in getting one of its preferred candidates, Gali Baharav-Miara, appointed recently as the new attorney-general.