Justice Minister Amir Ohana officially took office on Sunday, striking a conciliatory tone toward the justice system after sparking a firestorm earlier this month with suggestions that some High Court of Justice rulings need not be obeyed.
Ohana, a Likud lawmaker who was appointed to the job two weeks ago after his predecessor, Ayelet Shaked, was fired, has been outspoken in his criticism of the courts.
“I am not coming here with a bulldozer or a tank,” Ohana declared at a Justice Ministry ceremony, alluding to past comments by right-wing lawmaker Moti Yogev recommending that Israel’s judiciary be razed in response to settler home demolitions.
“We all want to strengthen the justice system,” the Likud minister said in his speech. “I believe that the best way to do this is to stay away, as much as possible, from controversial topics in Israeli society. There are areas in which it would be best for the Supreme Court to refrain from intervention, even if the conduct of the Knesset, the government and the prime minister appears to the judges to be improper. It would be best to leave this behavior to the court of public opinion and the electorate in the democratic process.”
Before assuming his ministerial role, Ohana told Channel 12 earlier this month that his confidants had warned him the Justice Ministry could trump up criminal charges against him to remove him from office.
Speaking at the ceremony on Sunday, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan reassured Ohana that after spending time in the Justice Ministry, he would quickly discover such allegations were entirely spurious.
“You will realize without a shadow of a doubt that even if mistakes are made in haste, there is no malice here,” Nitzan said. “Before you are a group of people who seek truth and justice. I promise you that claims of trumping up charges or having ulterior motives are false and you will see this within a short period of time.”
Ohana met with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut on Thursday for the first time since he was appointed to the post a week earlier by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 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.
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 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.
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.