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Chief justice slams Knesset speaker’s attacks on High Court, warns of ‘anarchy’

Esther Hayut rails against ‘dangerous and irresponsible’ comments by Yariv Levin, who accused justices of a ‘coup’ after they rebuked Knesset for amending Basic Law

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on July 29, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on July 29, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut delivered a sharp rebuke Monday to what she termed the “dangerous and irresponsible” criticism of the court delivered last week by various right-wing politicians, including Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, after the court ruled against legislation passed by the parliament last year.

Speaking at the annual Israeli Bar Association conference in Eilat, Hayut railed against what she described as “blatant attacks and accusations that sometimes border on actual incitement.”

Decrying Levin’s suggestion that the court was instigating a “coup,” she said such statements undermine the rule of law and could lead to “anarchy and chaos.”

Several prominent politicians, led by Likud’s Levin, excoriated the court last week after it issued a ruling that seemed to claim for itself the authority to overturn quasi-constitutional Basic Laws passed by the Knesset. The 6-3 ruling said last year’s legislation that allowed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue funding state agencies without passing a state budget was a “misuse of the Knesset’s authority.”

Levin had said in response to the ruling: “The High Court decision to issue a ‘notice of invalidation’ to a Basic Law is a decision without any authority. It’s shocking. We’re witnessing an insane event in which six people are wrapping themselves in judicial robes in order to carry out a coup.”

He vowed to “stand with all my strength against this attempt to cancel our democracy,” and to “defend the stature and authority of the Knesset.”

Then-tourism minister Yariv Levin at the Kfar Maccabia Hotel in Ramat Gan, on October 27, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Hayut on Monday said trust in the court was central to the functioning of Israeli democracy.

“The judiciary is an island of stability in this time of great upheaval, although unfortunately there are those who have set themselves the goal of harming it and weakening it,” she said. “This trend is reflected, among other things, in blatant attacks and accusations that sometimes border on actual incitement.”

Hayut said the attacks “are not just in the domain of private individuals and tweeters in various social networks,” but are also, “to my great sadness, voiced by elected officials.”

“When a public servant allows himself to describe a court ruling as a ‘crazy event’ or a ‘coup,’ it teaches us more about what they say than about the court,” she said. “There are elected officials who allow themselves to call for disrespect and disobedience to rulings that are not to their liking. In these irresponsible calls lies a great danger, which it is important to warn against and say most clearly: Undermining the legitimacy of the courts and its rulings undermines the principle of the rule of law and from there, it’s not a long path to anarchy and chaos.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

During the same conference, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit echoed her sentiments, saying of the criticism leveled against the court: “These are irresponsible statements which undermine the basis for our coexistence here as a democratic society.”

Doubling down, Levin said in a statement that Hayut and Mandelblit’s comments were “an attempt to prepare for the new judicial revolution, whose purpose is the final transfer of legislative powers from the Knesset to the Supreme Court.”

He declared that “the attempt to delegitimize and intimidate those who stand firmly in order to protect the Knesset and democracy is doomed to fail.”

The court ruling on the budget extension marked the latest round in a long-running fight between liberals and conservatives over the powers of the High Court and the status of the Basic Laws.

Israel has no formal, explicit constitution, and the standing of its Basic Laws has been a point of contention for decades between liberals and conservatives.

Under Israel’s Basic Laws, a government must pass a state budget for a fiscal year by the end of March; failing to do so, the law stipulates, results in an automatic dissolution of the Knesset and snap elections.

Lawmakers vote against a bill to delay the budget deadline on December 22, 2020 (Danny Shem Tov/ Knesset Spokesperson)

But Netanyahu refused to allow a budget law to advance throughout 2020, in order to avoid reaching the November 2021 deadline for handing Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz the premiership as part of a rotation deal they signed.

In the face of Netanyahu’s refusal, the Knesset twice — in March and again in August last year — voted to amend the Basic Laws to allow a one-off delay of that budget deadline, which was ultimately pushed off to late December 2020.

When the final date arrived without a budget agreement, the Knesset refused to legislate another extension, automatically dissolving itself and sending the country to its fourth election in two years. That election was held in March of this year, with results as indecisive as the previous three rounds.

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