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Judiciary and rule of law are under assault, retiring justice warns

Menachem Mazuz, former attorney general and liberal-leaning Supreme Court judge, is the second justice to leave the bench this month

File: Supreme Court Justice Menachem (Meni) Mazuz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, November 10, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Supreme Court Justice Menachem (Meni) Mazuz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, November 10, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s political class is mounting a sustained and escalating assault on Israel’s judiciary and law enforcement bodies, Supreme Court Justice Menachem (Meni) Mazuz warned on Thursday at a small gathering at the court marking his retirement.

“We’re in a period of confrontation and growing criticism and vitriol from the political system directed at the judiciary and the law enforcement system as a whole,” Mazuz said. The constant state of combat with the political echelon “makes it difficult for the court to fulfill its purpose and duty, challenging it on a daily basis,” he added.

But he said as well that “this difficulty only highlights and further clarifies the vital importance of the court insisting on fulfilling its important constitutional-social role in defending the values of democracy and human rights.”

Mazuz, 65, a former attorney general and outspoken member of the court’s more liberal wing, announced his retirement in December for unspecified “personal reasons.” He leaves the bench several years early, as the mandatory retirement age for Israeli judges is 70.

Until his comments on Thursday, his retirement had been a quiet one. He declined the traditional farewell ceremony for a judge retiring from Israel’s top court, instead opting for a small gathering with fellow justices.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a hearing, December 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Chief Justice Esther Hayut said at Thursday’s ceremony, “We were very saddened by your decision to finish your term with us prematurely, but we respect your decision.” She praised his “uncompromising professionalism.”

Mazuz was born in Djerba, Tunisia, one of nine children of a local rabbi. His family moved to Israel in 1956, part of the mass exodus of Jewish communities from throughout the Arab world in those years. The family settled in the hardscrabble southern town of Netivot.

Though hailing from conservative roots, he acquired a reputation as a left-leaning legal official and judge. In the early 1990s, he served as legal adviser to the peace talks with Jordan and the Palestinians. He was appointed attorney general in 2004, and in 2005 drew the ire of the political right when he okayed aggressive police efforts to prevent protesters from disrupting the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that summer. Appointed to the Supreme Court in 2014, he was known throughout his term as the most consistent opponent of the controversial policy of demolishing the homes of terror suspects and convicted terrorists.

Mazuz may still publish rulings for the next three months, but only for cases whose hearings took place before his retirement.

Then-Supreme Court justice Menachem Mazuz, at the court on July 14, 2016. (Flash90)

The Supreme Court has been a point of contention in Israeli politics for many years, with conservatives arguing the court has grown too powerful and should be reined in and liberals warning that weakening the court would undermine a critical bulwark of Israel’s democratic institutions. The debate often grows loud and belligerent in the media and in the Knesset plenum.

As he left the court on Thursday, Mazuz warned that some of the criticism of the court had grown into an assault on the rule of law. “The notion of the importance of justice and respect for the law and its servants is repulsive to some elements in Israeli society and the political system,” he charged.

Mazuz’s retirement follows the retirement earlier this month of another liberal judge, former deputy chief justice Hanan Melcer.

The two posts may remain vacant until the current political deadlock is resolved, as the new Knesset has not yet been able to agree on its representatives to the Judicial Appointments Committee that will choose their replacements.

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