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Chief justice decries ‘politicization’ of judiciary as new judges sworn in

Esther Hayut alleges government efforts to interfere with judicial appointments panel for ‘ulterior motives,’ in criticism appeared aimed at lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut attends a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut attends a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut on Thursday implicitly accuse the government of seeking to meddle in judicial appointments, in criticism that appeared aimed at lawmakers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party.

Speaking at a swearing-in ceremony for new judges, Hayut said “there were those who tried to thwart” the work of the Judicial Appointments Committee for “ulterior motives.”

“For all those seeking to score political points at our expense, I would recommend you look inward,” she said. “The court system must remain outside the political game, because the attempts to drag it, and its judges, into the political arena are dangerous.”

Hayut said the judges selected by the panel “reflect all parts” of Israeli society and that they were chosen for their ״excellence in law and their virtues as people,” while pushing back on calls to reform the judicial system.

“Amid the political chaos and governmental instability that has accompanied our lives for a long time already, I allow myself to say that despite the repeated attempts to shake the earth beneath us, the judiciary is an island of stability and space for worthy, statesmanlike and respectful discourse,” she said.

New judges attend a swearing-in ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on December 31, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Hayut also praised outgoing Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, who also attended the ceremony at the President’s Residence.

“[He] was able to understand the needs of the [judicial] system,” she said.

Nissenkorn submitted his resignation on Wednesday after leaving Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party for Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new The Israelis party ahead of elections in March. Before the Knesset dissolved last week over the failure to pass a state budget, Blue and White and Likud reportedly negotiated an agreement to avoid new elections that included reducing Nissenkorn’s powers, a Likud demand. Blue and White denied reaching such a deal.

Netanyahu was said to be primarily interested in preventing Nissenkorn from appointing a state attorney and attorney general — two positions seen as critical to the prime minister, whose criminal trial is slated to resume soon — and new Supreme Court judges of his liking. Nissenkorn also opposes efforts by Netanyahu allies to reform the justice system, appoint more conservative judges and limit the power of the courts more broadly.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn seen during a visit at the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shoring up Hayut’s account, Nissenkorn said Thursday that there was a “serious attempt to politicize the appointments of the Supreme Court, in an attempt to make the justices dependent on the whims of the politicians.”

“We stopped it,” he said. “Maintaining an independent court was hard to digest for politicians whose personal interests guide them.”

Neither Hayut nor Nissenkorn specified who allegedly sought to interfere with the work of the Judicial Appointments Committee, but their criticism appeared aimed at the Likud members of the panel, Transportation Minister Miri Regev and MK Osnat Mark.

“Chief Justice Hayut, I wasn’t selected to the Judicial Appointments Committee as a puppet and rubber stamp,” Regev tweeted in response. “The left is sick with elitism, detachment and a desire to preserve the courts as a stronghold of activist hegemony. Your comments remove public trust in the courts and hurt the administering of justice and equality.”

Earlier this month, Regev, Mark and Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser boycotted a meeting of the committee over the nomination of two Arab justices they accuse of anti-Zionism, and claimed — apparently mistakenly — that the panel could not legally convene without them.

One of the judges whose promotion the three opposed, Abbas A’asi, was sworn in at the event on Thursday.

Also addressing the ceremony was President Reuven Rivlin.

“Our legal system is an integral part of the Israeli state. No citizen, from left or right, would want to live in a country where the legal system is not independent, strong and efficient,” he said.

He also said the judicial system wasn’t beyond reproach and urged greater transparency.

“A vibrant democratic society exists and develops thanks to the differences and tensions within it. All criticism is welcome. It should be heard and its lessons learned. You must not fear criticism, but rather invite it in, examine it and discuss it,” he told the judges.

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