200 lawyers threaten to shut down legal system over PM’s bid to curb High Court

Attorneys reportedly to meet Monday to design campaign against planned reforms; organizer decries ‘Erdoganization process’ against justice

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, November 1, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, November 1, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Some 200 Israeli lawyers are reportedly planning a campaign against legislation curbing the Supreme Court that seems likely to be promoted by the next government, arguing that it would erode the “foundations of Israeli democracy and society” and threatening to start a strike in the entire justice system.

Last week, Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was planning to promote a bill allowing lawmakers to overrule administrative and legislative decisions by the country’s top court, including any ruling it could make against granting the premier immunity from corruption charges against him.

It would thus prevent the court from overturning both Knesset legislation and government decisions on constitutional grounds. According to the Haaretz daily, the planned bill will be included in a legal annex to coalition agreements and government guidelines. On Friday, a day after senior Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, criticized planned immunity legislation for Netanyahu’s “personal interests,” Yariv Levin, who is leading the Likud team in the coalition talks, said the agreements would not deal with such matters.

Dozens of the attorneys are set to meet on Monday at the Tel Aviv offices of the Goldfarb Seligman law firm to formulate their campaign, the Calcalist financial news site reported Sunday.

The meeting was called by Zvi Bar-Nathan, a senior official in the law firm, who said that “we are fighting for our core values. If we don’t fiercely protect the justice system and our basic values as a liberal democracy, nobody will.

“This isn’t about right and left, and it is absolutely not a struggle of those who like or dislike the current leadership. This struggle is apolitical and needs to be embraced by anyone who cares about this country,” Bar-Nathan added.

“We recognize the legitimacy of the leadership, but unequivocally reject the legitimacy of actions that are meant to topple the rule of law — by legal means — out of personal and populist needs,” he said. “To the extent that it is up to us, it won’t happen and we won’t lend a hand to it.”

One of the other organizers, Guy Gissin, said the campaign would be a lengthy one, with protests gradually escalating, the report said.

“The actions being weighed include establishing a physical guard of dozens of lawyers around the Supreme Court under the slogan: ‘You’ll need to pass us,'” he said, adding that the activists could even reach the point of initiating a shutdown of the entire justice system.

A bank account for donations to the campaign has been opened, and lawyers and law firms have donated tens of thousands of shekels, the report said.

Equating Netanyahu’s push with legislation passed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that enables him to rule for decades, Gissin slammed the efforts as “an Erdoganization process that contradicts the principles of liberty, justice and equality upon which the state was established.”

One of the objectives of the proposed legislation in coalition talks is thought to be a possible Knesset decision to grant Netanyahu retroactive immunity in a series of criminal cases in which he is facing an indictment. Netanyahu has denied that is the case.

The prime minister is facing charges for fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, and bribery in one of them. Netanyahu, who by law is entitled to a pre-trial hearing with the attorney general before an indictment is formally filed, has denied any wrongdoing and claims the corruption accusations are aimed at forcing him from office.

Illustrative. Israeli Supreme Court justices, at a hearing on March 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

In a Facebook post last week, Netanyahu wrote that he has always supported “a strong and independent court — but that does not mean an all-powerful court.”

“Misleading leaks and distorted commentary published by the media include proposals that are untrue,” he said. “All this is being done to sow fear and prevent any changes, in an attempt to block the restoration of balance between the branches [of government].”

Netanyahu added that such balance was “required to pass laws that have been struck down in the past, laws the public expects us to pass: the expulsion of terrorists’ families, the death penalty for terrorists and a deportation law for [African migrants].”

In fact, only the deportation of illegal immigrants has been blocked by the courts in the past. The other two bills have not yet cleared the legislative process, having been bogged down by various disagreements and difficulties.

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