Supreme Court President Esther Hayut vowed in private conversations she would resign her position early in protest if government reforms to radically overhaul Israel’s judicial and legal system pass the Knesset in their full current form, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported Friday.
Hayut is scheduled to serve as chief justice until October, but according to the unsourced report, she may resign half a year before schedule, if the government keeps to its timetable of pushing through its legislation by the end of March.
Hayut’s office denied she made such remarks.
The reported comments came amid a backdrop of rising tension between the government and judiciary over the planned reforms, which spiked this week following the High Court’s decision to disqualify Shas chair Aryeh Deri from serving as a cabinet minister over his repeated criminal convictions.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin has proposed weakening the Supreme Court so that it will not be able to veto legislation and policies deemed unconstitutional, and granting the government control over the panel that selects judges. Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the overhaul will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch, and leaving minorities undefended.
Commentators have noted that a mass resignation of judges in protest of the reforms would simply enable the government to stack the court with justices regarded as ideologically convenient, in a process that would be eased by Levin’s proposal to remake the selection committee for judges in order to give the government a majority.
Reforming the court has been a major conservative goal for over a decade, with many on the right and among the ultra-Orthodox frustrated by what they see as an activist bench made up of progressives undermining the country’s right-wing majority.
In response to Hayut’s reported remarks, firebrand Likud MK Tali Gottlieb urged her to “quit now already,” in a tweet on Friday.
“You are not doing us any good. Don’t threaten that you will resign if we pass our reforms. Just resign. I won’t even be a little bit sad,” Gottlieb wrote and accused the chief justice of stirring up quarrels among Israelis.
Channel 12 reported on Wednesday that the Shin Bet security service decided to boost security details for both Hayut and Levin amid the hotly contested debate on the matter.
In a fiery speech last week, Hayut panned the government’s planned overhaul, arguing it would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic identity.
Her speech was criticized by Levin, who said it underlined his arguments that the justice system has been politicized, and chastised her for violating ethics rules for serving judges.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, however, gave Hayut full backing, saying the opposition would “stand by her side in the struggle for the soul of the country” and the attempt to “dismantle” Israel’s democracy.