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Bennett holds ‘introductory meeting’ with Supreme Court Chief Justice Hayut

PM’s Yamina party has previously pushed for widespread judicial reform to weaken powers of court, seen by many on the right as a symbol of the old left-leaning political elite

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Portrait of the Jerusalem Supreme Court Judge, Esther Hayut, on May 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Portrait of the Jerusalem Supreme Court Judge, Esther Hayut, on May 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut Wednesday in their first such session since the formation of the new government, Bennett’s office said in a statement.

The “introductory meeting,” took place at the court in Jerusalem and was not photographed. No details of the conversation were relayed, except that Hayut “congratulated the Prime Minister on assuming office.”

The meeting comes after years of Bennett’s Yamina party pushing for widespread judicial reform to weaken the powers of Israel’s highest legal body.

In the most comprehensive and deep-cutting plan put forward by any of the right-wing parties running in the recent elections, Yamina had proposed a “legal upheaval” to dismantle the Supreme Court’s judicial oversight over the parliament and, at the same time, give the Knesset full power to appoint judges.

Bennett himself has said that reining in the authority of the Supreme Court would improve Israeli democracy by giving power to the public, with whom it should rightfully reside.

For the Israeli right, the Supreme Court represents the old left-leaning political elite, a bench of ostensibly like-minded figures that it is determined to replace.

The Supreme Court’s interventionist approach — with its strong emphasis on protecting minority rights – was pioneered by Aharon Barak, who served as the court’s president (the Israeli equivalent of chief justice) between 1995 and 2006. Controversially, Barak decreed a “blue pencil” principle according to which judges possess a line-item veto over legislation and can strike down individual articles or words.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 20, 2021. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

The court’s defenders say that in Israel’s fractious society, where the Knesset frequently shirks its responsibility to protect religious pluralism, civil liberties and the rights of Palestinians, the court has no choice but to fill the moral and legal vacuum. Maintaining an independent judiciary, they say, serves as a counterweight against the danger of a “tyranny of the majority” trampling the rights of those who are not properly represented by the political system. Since then, the court has upheld a tradition of judicial activism, remaining at the center of Israeli public debate and making it a lightning rod for right-wing critics.

Newly appointed Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, while also a proponent of judicial reform, has said his chief goal will not focus on the court but will aim to separate the position of attorney general from that of legal adviser to the government — two roles currently held by one person.

Critics have long argued that the current situation creates an inherent conflict of interest whereby the official tasked with representing the government’s legal position is also in charge of potentially prosecuting members of that same government.

Speaking last week, Sa’ar said the justice system has problems he wants to fix, but he wasn’t aiming to destroy the system. His move to split the role would mean one official advises the government on legal matters, while another gets the power to prosecute officials — likely an upgraded version of the current role of state attorney.

Sa’ar also said he aimed to give more care to civil rights in criminal and civil lawsuits, reducing the number of indictments and removing bureaucratic hurdles. He also wants to pass a quasi-constitutional Basic Law regulating when the High Court of Justice can intervene in the Knesset’s legislative work.

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