Bar Association boss to step down in protest against incoming government

Avi Himi says values of incoming ministers clash with his own and with state’s; will stay on until next Bar election in June; 78 former judges say new coalition endangers democracy

Chairman of the Israeli Bar Association, attorney Avi Himi, at a court hearing in Rishon Lezion on April 20, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Chairman of the Israeli Bar Association, attorney Avi Himi, at a court hearing in Rishon Lezion on April 20, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The head of the Israel Bar Association announced Tuesday that he will not run for a new term in June in protest of policies being pushed by Israel’s incoming government, which has laid out plans for controversial reforms that critics say will cripple the judiciary.

Defense attorney Avi Himi, who took over the scandal-battered association in 2019 with a promise to rehabilitate the organization, cited ethical qualms over the new government in a Facebook post announcing his decision to step down next year.

“[My] values clash with the ‘values’ of the apparent new government, and they are undermining Israeli democracy, the rule of law and the value of equality for all the state’s citizens,” he wrote.

“I will not lend my hand to the moves of ignorant, anti-democratic people, some of whom are major players in the incoming government, who want to set Israeli people against each other,” he added, noting that he will stay on until his replacement is selected.

While the Bar Association is not a state body, it has an official role in helping appoint and promote new judges and Supreme Court justices, holding two of the nine seats on the Judicial Selection Committee.

Members of the new government, set to be helmed by Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu and backed by lawmakers from far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, have put forward plans to reform the committee, which they accuse of perpetuating the bench’s liberal bent due to unelected lawyers and judges having an outsized voice on the panel.

Then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked seen with then-chief justice Miriam Naor, then-Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and members of the Judicial Appointments Committee at a meeting in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The new government is expected to pursue legislation that will shift the allotment of seats to give coalition politicians bigger sway over the panel.

The move is one of several planned reforms aimed at the judiciary, a bastion of progressivism long accused by the right wing of subverting its democratic majority.

Judicial authorities and others have spoken out vociferously against the planned reforms, which may also include legislation neutering the court’s ability to strike down unconstitutional laws. Critics say the plans will remove essential checks and balances vital to the healthy functioning of Israel’s democracy and concentrate too much power in the hands of the ruling majority. They have also raised fears the moves will be used to help Netanyahu wriggle out of his criminal trials.

A letter signed by 78 former judges published earlier Tuesday warned that “the implementation of these steps that violate our values could fundamentally change the moral image of the State of Israel and damage it not only internally but also in the eyes of the world, international institutions and Jewish communities in the Diaspora.”

Himi on Tuesday also cited a legislative cannonade aimed at passing a series of amendments tailoring Israel’s semi-constitutional Basic Laws to various demands of incoming lawmakers, which Netanyahu’s coalition is pushing through the Knesset this week ahead of the government’s expected swearing-in.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by MKs after a vote for the new Knesset speaker on December 13, 2022. At bottom right is Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The attorney described the laws as “shameful” and standing in opposition to the values set out in the 1948 Declaration of Independence.

Earlier this month, he told the Haaretz daily that the new government’s proposals would “turn us into Hungary, with all that implies,” referring to far-reaching reforms implemented by the European country’s populist leader Viktor Orban.

“The significance is that there will be a government without restraints or oversight, and which can do whatever it pleases,” he said.

Himi took over the Bar Association three years ago from Efi Naveh, who resigned after being accused in two criminal cases, including one in which he allegedly used his seat on the Judicial Selections Committee to advance judges in exchange for sexual favors.

In the Facebook post Tuesday, Himi claimed that he had made good on promises to clean up the organization “following a sharp crisis in confidence between the Bar and the general public.”

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