Germany rebuffs Israeli anger after envoy attends High Court ‘reasonableness’ hearing

Jerusalem says behavior unacceptable, but Berlin retorts actions in line with diplomatic role; Scholz: ‘He has clear principles. Everyone knows that, including in Israel’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Germany's Ambassador to Israel Steffen Seibert at the High Court of Justice hearing on the coalition's reasonableness law, September 12, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Germany's Ambassador to Israel Steffen Seibert at the High Court of Justice hearing on the coalition's reasonableness law, September 12, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Germany backed its ambassador in Israel after Jerusalem complained about his presence at the landmark High Court of Justice hearing on the coalition’s reasonableness law last week.

German Ambassador to Israel Steffen Seibert posted a video of himself at the dramatic 13-hour session, stating, in Hebrew: “I think something important is happening here for Israeli democracy, and we, as friends of Israel, are also looking with a lot of interest towards the Supreme Court, and I wanted to see for myself.”

An Israeli diplomat told The Times of Israel on Monday: “At Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s instruction, a senior Foreign Ministry official spoke with [German] Ambassador Seibert and expressed our protest on the matter. Similar messages were sent from the embassy in Berlin to Germany’s Foreign Ministry.”

In response, Germany’s Foreign Ministry endorsed Seibert’s move, while saying it could not confirm whether an official complaint had been filed.

“The observation of important political, also domestic, developments in their respective host countries is a central responsibility of diplomats. The visit of a public hearing of a partner state`s Supreme Court, like the visit of Ambassador Seibert, is an excellent example for this common practice.

“The Federal Foreign Office is in permanent contact with its Israeli partners,” they added.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told journalists in New York that the ambassador “is a very committed man with very clear principles. And I believe that everyone knows that — including in Israel.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock added that it was the “everyday business of diplomats” to monitor developments in foreign countries. “It’s also normal to go to public hearings or public court cases — it’s part of his job.”

Baerbock, like many among Israel’s Western allies, has spoken out in concern over the controversial overhaul.

“We abroad are concerned about some Israeli legislative plans,” Baerbock said in February at a joint press conference with Cohen. “The values that bind us together include the protection of principles of the rule of law such as judicial independence. This was always a hallmark of Israel.”

Cohen responded that the widespread anti-government protests against the legislation were proof that Israel promotes freedom of expression, and said that the legal overhaul would in his view “strengthen Israeli democracy.”

At the high-stakes hearing on September 12, a full bench of the court heard petitions against the first major piece of judicial overhaul legislation passed by the government — a law that prohibits courts from striking down cabinet and ministerial decisions based on their being “unreasonable.”

It was the first time that all 15 justices of the court sat on a case.

A ruling will be handed down later on.

Critics of the coalition’s plans say the legislative package will fundamentally alter Israel’s democratic system by stripping the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the governing coalition. Supporters say that it is necessary to rein in what they see as an overly activist court.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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