After implying he wouldn’t, justice minister says he’ll respect High Ct. rulings

After equivocating in interview, Amir Ohana says he was only talking about overriding court in extreme cases where lives at risk; also warns state prosecutor could ‘frame him’

Amir Ohana, newly appointed Israeli Justice Minister seen during his swearing in ceremony at the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Amir Ohana, newly appointed Israeli Justice Minister seen during his swearing in ceremony at the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Newly appointed Justice Minister Amir Ohana on Wednesday evening was forced to clarify that he would respect High Court rulings after he indicated in an interview that it was not always appropriate to do so.

Ohana, who was appointed last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to head the ministry until the September elections, has been outspoken about his criticism of the courts.

In an interview with Channel 12 on Wednesday, Ohana was asked whether, in certain situations, High Court decisions should not be followed. “The ultimate consideration has to be preserving citizens’ lives, yes,” he replied.

Later Wednesday evening, he issued a statement clarifying that the government must respect High Court rulings.

In the interview, he gave an example of a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that he believed should not have been followed, in which he said the court refused to allow the military to destroy several Palestinian buildings along the Kissufim route in the Gaza Strip.

Terrorists then used the building as cover to murder pregnant Israeli woman Tali Hatuel and her four daughters.

Mourners attend the funerals of Tali Hatuel, 34, who was eight months pregnant and her four daughters, aged two to 11, at the Ashkelon cemetery on Sunday, May 2, 2004. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“I gave an example of an extreme case that happened in reality,” said Ohana. “We are not talking about regular (court) decisions, and we are not talking about decisions that I happen to disagree with. I was talking about the most extreme instances, where a black flag flies over them, and they could cost lives.”

“But even the obvious has to be said: We need to respect the decisions of the courts. This is what I have always done and this is what I believe,” he said. “Israel is a democracy that upholds the rule of law and it will stay that way.”

But his vote of confidence in the courts did not extend to the state prosecutor’s office, warning that he feared they might plan to “frame him.”

“I am mentally prepared for this. I hope it won’t happen, I believe it won’t happen, but I’m preparing for the possibility,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Ohana used his maiden speech as minister to declare that Israel’s justice system was “the least democratic” of the country’s three branches of government, and vowed to seek changes he believed would lead to a more balanced judiciary.

In a speech at an event of the Israel Bar Association, his first since taking office last week, Ohana said, “Anyone who wants a strong justice system, anyone who wants what is best for the justice system — must be prepared to criticize it, and criticism also means change.”

“Can it truly be claimed that the way judges are appointed allows the necessary pluralism?” he said. “Can we ignore the public’s sense of a growing rift between the terms ‘law’ and ‘justice’?

“I see only one branch [of government] that has no checks and balances, barring those it is good enough to place upon itself.”

But while Ohana appeared intent on setting the tone for his term — and possibly that of his Likud party if it retains the portfolio — it was unlikely that he would be able to enact any far-reaching policy changes himself. Netanyahu only appointed him to the job as a placeholder, after firing the New Right’s Ayelet Shaked last week.

Ayelet Shaked speaks during her farewell ceremony, at the Justice Ministry offices in Jerusalem on June 4, 2019. ( Hadas Parush/Flash90)

With new elections in September and the Justice portfolio one of the most coveted in coalition negotiations, Ohana is unlikely to survive in the post for more than a few months. and hardly has the mandate or the means to make sweeping changes while serving in an interim government.

Ohana is a lawyer by training who became the first openly gay MK in a right-wing party when he was elected to the Knesset in 2015. He is now the first openly gay minister in Israel’s history.

Ohana is among the only senior members of Likud to have publicly backed Netanyahu’s drive to secure immunity from prosecution in the cases against him. Earlier this year, he struck out at legal authorities over the Netanyahu investigations, charging that judicial officials, who have announced their intention to charge the prime minister pending a hearing, were usurping the will of the Israeli voters.

Netanyahu is suspected of corruption — including one count of bribery — in three cases, one of which involves gifts from wealthy associates, with the other two involving potential quid pro quo deals for regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.

The prime minister has long accused police, the media, judicial officials and the political left of conducting a witch hunt against him, and has denied any wrongdoing.

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