Amid Likud spats with judiciary, Rivlin says courts ‘cornerstone of democracy’

Comments seen as implicit criticism of Netanyahu a day after PM called his wife’s fraud conviction a ‘witch hunt’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Reuven Rivlin attend a ceremony in memory of deceased Israeli presidents and prime ministers held at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on June 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Reuven Rivlin attend a ceremony in memory of deceased Israeli presidents and prime ministers held at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on June 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin on Monday said Israel’s judiciary was a “cornerstone of democracy,” in remarks seen as implicit criticism of a reported legislative push to downgrade the independence of the courts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies are said to be exploring the possibility of passing a law that would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority. Netanyahu, who is facing indictment in three criminal cases, has also been accused of harming public trust in the judiciary by attacking the attorney general, police and others.

“The branches of government — the legislative, the executive and the judicial — are the cornerstones, the underpinnings, of Israeli democracy,” Rivlin said.

“It is our duty, the duty of all those who wish Israel well, to respect the laws of the state and the authority of its branches. This duty is measured both in deeds and in words, which should be chosen carefully and with forethought, out of a commitment to safeguard the foundations of our national home.”

Rivlin spoke at an event at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem to commemorate Israeli presidents and prime ministers who have passed away.

Netanyahu spoke after Rivlin, telling the assembled dignitaries, among them Supreme Court justices, “I share your call, Mr. President, over the importance and centrality of the law in our national life and our democracy, and of course the court’s rulings apply to us all.”

But, he said, “The balance between the branches — that is the foundation of a modern democracy.”

“I don’t forget the importance or the role of the court, not for a moment,” he added.

Rivlin interjected from the audience, “You know what my teacher [former PM] Menachem Begin used to say — ‘even the obvious should be said aloud.'”

Netanyahu replied, “You’re right.”

Rivlin’s comments came a day after Netanyahu claimed the conviction of his wife for financial fraud was part of a “witch hunt” by prosecutors and judges.

Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on June 16, 2019. (Photo by DEBBIE HILL / AFP)

Sara Netanyahu was convicted by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Sunday of spending NIS 175,000 ($48,400) in public funds for gourmet meals and in-house chefs, mostly for the family’s private consumption, between 2010 and 2013. The spending was in contravention of Prime Minister’s Office rules and despite the presence of a full-time chef on the PM’s residence staff.

Sara Netanyahu’s conviction came as part of a plea deal that saw her escape a conviction of aggravated fraud but confess to a lesser charge of taking advantage of another’s mistake. She will pay NIS 55,000 ($15,210) — NIS 10,000 as a fine, and the rest as restitution.

“Today, a crazy four-year witch hunt over takeout dinners and food has come to an end, a witch hunt that cost the taxpayer millions of shekels,” the prime minister lashed out on Sunday, after the conviction. “You all know this — if it wasn’t my wife, there wouldn’t have been an investigation, and no one would have dreamed of an indictment.”

In his Sunday statement, Netanyahu said he “respected the court,” and noted that it convicted his wife of fraud committed by “taking advantage of a mistake,” and not through “willful deception,” a more serious charge. He still maintained she was innocent.

Netanyahu’s comments drew an extremely rare public rebuke by prosecutors, who said in an unofficial statement to the press, “Today, Mrs. Netanyahu stood in court and admitted to committing a crime that included tricking the state into giving her NIS 175,000. She was convicted under law. Immediately afterwards, the prime minister denies these facts and claims his wife was the subject of a ‘crazy witch hunt.'”

The statement added: “The prime minister ignored the fact that she admitted explicitly to deceiving [officials].”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Supreme Court president Esther Hayut attend a ceremony in memory of deceased Israeli presidents and prime ministers held at the president residence in Jerusalem on June 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The spat between Netanyahu and the courts is only the latest example of right-wing political leaders lashing out at the judiciary in recent years.

Last week, the new justice minister, Likud’s Amir Ohana, said in an interview with Channel 12 news that it was not always appropriate to respect High Court rulings, claiming that the court had refused to allow the military to destroy several Palestinian buildings along the Kissufim route in the Gaza Strip in 2004, from which terrorists later fired on and killed a pregnant Israeli, Tali Hatuel, and her four daughters.

Ohana’s claims were disputed by Israeli media, who noted that the state did not actively pursue the demolition, and the hearings petered out without the court giving such a ruling.

But asked whether High Court decisions should not be followed in certain situations, Ohana replied that “the ultimate consideration has to be preserving citizens’ lives, yes.”

In a harsh retort, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut accused Ohana of leading the country to “anarchy.” Netanyahu also said it was incumbent upon all Israelis to obey court verdicts. “Court decisions are binding upon everyone,” he tweeted.

In response, Ohana on Wednesday evening clarified that he would respect High Court rulings — but then warned that he believed state prosecutors were preparing to frame him for an unspecified crime.

Amir Ohana, newly appointed Israeli Justice Minister seen during his swearing in ceremony at the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ohana, who was appointed last week by Netanyahu to head the ministry until the September elections, has been outspoken in his criticism of the courts.

Earlier in the week, Ohana used his maiden speech as minister to declare that Israel’s justice system was “the least democratic” of the country’s three branches of government, and vowed to seek changes he believed would lead to a more balanced judiciary.

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