Justice Minister Amir Ohana met with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut on Thursday for the first time since he was appointed to the post last week, and following a public spat between the two over his apparent assertion that not all court rulings should be obeyed.
The meeting was framed by the two officials as an attempt to show cooperation following the rancor. In a joint statement issued following the meeting, they said the focus was on “issues on the agenda of the judiciary,” and the “substantive cooperation required between the judiciary and the minister in order to advance them.”
They also agreed to hold regular meetings every two weeks for the duration of Ohana’s term, which is expected to last at least until November, when a new government is likely to be sworn in following the September 17 elections.
Ohana, a Likud lawmaker who was sworn in to the job last Wednesday, has been outspoken in his criticism of the courts.
In one of his first interviews as minister, on the day of his swearing in, he insinuated to Channel 12 news that it was not always appropriate to adhere to High Court of Justice rulings — particularly when the ruling could endanger lives.
As an example, he claimed that the High Court had rejected the IDF’s petition in 2004 to destroy several Palestinian buildings in Gaza located along the Kissufim road. Palestinian terrorists would later fire on and kill a pregnant Israeli woman, Tali Hatuel, and her four daughters from those structures buildings.
“The ultimate consideration,” he said when asked if court rulings should sometimes be ignored, “has to be preserving citizens’ lives.”
Ohana’s facts were disputed by Hebrew media, which noted that the state abandoned its 2004 demolition request before the court hearings, so the court never delivered such a ruling.
The comments drew a rare direct rebuke from Hayut, who warned that the new justice minister was leading the country to “anarchy.”
She lashed the “unprecedented and irresponsible legal worldview” expressed by the minister, which she said amounted to arguing that “any party [in a court case] can from now on, with the blessing of the justice minister, choose which ruling he should follow, and which ruling he doesn’t have to follow.”
Ohana was also criticized by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and other officials.
Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of whom Ohana is a loyal backer, took to Twitter to say it was incumbent on all Israelis to obey court verdicts. “Court decisions are binding on everyone,” he said.
Ohana, a practicing attorney before his turn to politics, later clarified he believes governments must respect court decisions, and had referred only to the most extreme instances in which a “black flag” flies over a ruling.
“In my view, the first and ultimate responsibility of any state is the well-being and security of its citizens,” he said in a statement. He added: “Just so it’s clear: Without a judiciary you can’t have democracy.”
He said he would respect High Court rulings as minister.
Also last week Ohana used his maiden Knesset speech as minister to declare that Israel’s judiciary was “the least democratic” of the country’s three branches of government, and vowed to seek changes he believed would lead to a more responsive judiciary.