Supreme Court chief accuses new justice minister of leading Israel to ‘anarchy’

In unprecedented attack, Esther Hayut castigates ‘irresponsible’ Amir Ohana for suggesting not all court rulings should be honored

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut attends the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, on Israel's 71st Independence Day, May 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut attends the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, on Israel's 71st Independence Day, May 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut on Thursday mounted an unprecedented attack on a sitting justice minister, accusing the newly appointed Amir Ohana of leading the country to “anarchy” with his suggestion that not all of the court’s rulings should be honored.

Ohana, who was appointed last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to head the ministry until the September elections, made the assertion during a Wednesday interview with Channel 12 news, after being sworn in to the post earlier in the day.

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

Hayut lambasted Ohana in a speech Thursday at an educational event for court presidents and vice presidents in Kibbutz Ma’ale Hahamisha, west of Jerusalem.

“I take an extremely dim view of a justice minister in the State of Israel, on the day he is sworn in, choosing to share with us an unprecedented and irresponsible judicial worldview according to which not all rulings handed out by courts should be honored,” Hayut declared.

“In other words, any litigant can from now on — with the justice minister’s blessing — choose which verdict needs to be obeyed and which does not,” she added. “With that worldview, the path to anarchy, in which everyone does what they feel like, is short.”

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)

In the interview, Ohana, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the courts, gave an example of a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that he believes 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.

Ohana was asked whether, in certain situations, High Court decisions should therefore 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.

“I gave an example of an extreme case that happened in reality,” said Ohana in his clarification statement. “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.”

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)

“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.”

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, 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.”

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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