PM meets Supreme Court chief, a day after she slams him over judicial reforms

Netanyahu and Esther Hayut urge ‘respectful dialogue’ between Knesset and legal system, toning down fiery rhetoric from ruling party in favor of limiting court’s powers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meeting Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and her deputy Hanan Melcer (L) at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 28, 2019. (Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meeting Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and her deputy Hanan Melcer (L) at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 28, 2019. (Courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday evening held a surprise meeting in his Jerusalem office with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, who blasted him just a day before — for the second time in as many weeks — over looming legislative efforts to stifle the state’s judicial system and grant the premier immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu and his Likud party lawmakers are reportedly planning to pass so-called override legislation, removing from the court its power to strike down Knesset laws, and government and parliamentary decisions, it deems unconstitutional.

The passage of such an “override clause” would wreak what has been called the greatest constitutional change in Israeli history, with vast potential impact on the checks and balances at the heart of the country’s democracy, denying the courts the capacity to protect Israeli minorities and uphold core human rights. It would also, not incidentally, mean the court could not reverse Knesset-approved immunity for Netanyahu.

The prime minister is facing charges, pending a hearing, of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them. He has denied any wrongdoing and claims the corruption accusations are a political witch hunt aimed at forcing him from office.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Tuesday that Netanyahu had requested the meeting with Hayut and her deputy, Justice Hanan Melcer.

Hebrew-language media reports said the premier had only requested it on Tuesday afternoon, indicating it was hastily arranged.

“The three noted the importance of a substantive and respectful dialogue between the authorities,” the PMO statement said.

Hayut and Melcer “stressed the importance of maintaining the independence of the judicial authority,” it continued. “Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized the need for balance between the authorities while holding the aforesaid dialogue.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut arrives for a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, speaking at an Israel Bar Association conference in Eilat, Hayut opened her remarks by quoting a line from a speech that Netanyahu gave a year and a half ago at her October 2017 swearing-in ceremony.

“One thing that does not change — and should not change — is the need for a strong, independent, honest and impartial court. That has not changed, and it will not change either,” Netanyahu said back then.

In the same speech, Hayut said, the prime minister called for an “open and honorable dialogue in addition to building bridges between the [legislative and judicial] authorities out of a balanced approach and mutual respect.”

Having cited his words, the chief justice then addressed Netanyahu directly. “Since that ceremony at the President’s Residence, a year and a half has passed, and I have to ask: What has changed during this period? Has anything happened since that justifies a deviation from these important principles? In my opinion, the answer to this question is no.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut (L) at a memorial service marking 22 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, held at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. November 1, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Adhering to the principles outlined by Netanyahu less than two years ago “is one of the most important guarantees for the existence of democratic life in the State of Israel,” she said.

That was the second time this month that Hayut went on the offensive against perceived attacks on the legal body she heads.

Two weeks ago, in a speech in Nuremberg, Germany, she invoked the Nazi takeover of Germany in the 1930s. Referring to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Hayut said that, in the very city where she was speaking, “law and justice reached one of the lowest points in human history,” in the country that had “one of the most progressive constitutions protecting human rights and liberties — the Weimar Constitution.”

“History is not repeating itself,” she said at an event hosted by the Israeli German Lawyers Association, “but it gives us the opportunity to learn from it and enables us to see patterns and judge for ourselves.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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