Justices of the Supreme Court announced Tuesday they will skip a state ceremony celebrating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank and Golan Heights.
The official ceremony Wednesday at the industrial park in the Etzion Bloc is being funded by the Culture and Education ministries to the tune of NIS 10 million ($2.8 million), and will feature a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Following an appeal to the court from Meretz MK Issawi Frej, Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor said the court felt it was “inappropriate” to send a representative to the event.
“Several weeks ago… Justice Neal Hendel was asked by the chief justice to represent the judges at the event,” she wrote in a letter addressed to Frej. “Several days ago a detailed invitation was received. Following that, after revisiting the topic, it was decided that it is inappropriate for a representative of the court to attend the event. Therefore Justice Hendel will not be taking part.”
The Supreme Court said Hendel had phoned the organizers personally to apologize for not attending.
Frej, a lawmaker from the left-wing Meretz party, shared the letter publicly, and thanked the judges for their decision.
“This is a controversial political event, and Justice Hendel’s participation would have undermined the trust in the Supreme Court for a large part of the Israeli public,” he said. “The court should deal with law and not politics; this is what it has done until now — and it is a good thing that it will continue to do so.”
After the court announced its decision, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked spoke with Naor and asked her to reverse her decision, Channel 1 reported. Shaked told Naor it was an official government event, not a political statement.
The decision by the court was met with condemnation from right-wing lawmakers and leaders of the West Bank communities, who have long accused the justices of holding left-wing political views.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) called the decision “shameful.”
“The political positions of the heads of the judicial system were shown today most clearly, with the unprecedented and shameful decision of the Supreme Court justices,” he said in a statement. “It is clear, once again, that the Supreme Court judges bring a personal left-wing political agenda to the courtroom which is reflected in their rulings which repeatedly harm settlers and the settlement enterprise.”
Levin also called on the government not to extend invitations to the judges for any future official events.
Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, said he was not surprised at the court’s decision.
“Every time I am amazed to see public figures being surprised by President Naor’s view,” he said in a statement. He accused the justices of “using the lofty role of Supreme Court judge to promote an ideological agenda.”
Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev slammed Naor’s decision in a series of tweets, saying it reflected the politicization of the court system.
“The settlements in Judea and Samaria were established by decisions of [successive] Israeli governments, legally and democratically,” he tweeted. “Law-abiding citizens live in them and they are part of Israel, forever.”
He called on the prime minister and justice minister to take whatever steps necessary to show the court the error of its decision.
On Monday, Channel 1 reported that the opposition Yesh Atid and Zionist Union parties decided not only to skip the event, but to bar their MKs from attending. Within hours, both factions issued denials that any such “boycott,” as the report had called it, was in place.
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid tweeted: “To all those concerned, Yesh Atid is not boycotting the ceremony celebrating 50 years of settlement. MK [Haim] Jelin will be representing us at the ceremony. The report was erroneous.”
Lapid himself attended a July ceremony in the illegal Netiv Ha’avot outpost, where he praised the local settlers for their “bravery.”
Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay said that while he himself had declined the invitation, he had not forbidden his MKs from attending and believed each member should make a personal decision whether or not to attend.
In a statement from the party, the Zionist Union accused Netanyahu’s government of being preoccupied with divisive politics. “When we get into power, we will deal with deeds and not with speeches,” the statement said.
The statement was referring to fiery responses to the initial report that came from right-wing lawmakers and settler leaders criticizing the two opposition parties.
Culture Minister Miri Regev said she was “ashamed that a party that calls itself the Zionist Union” would not be attending the ceremony. She said that earlier leaders within the Labor movement, such as former prime ministers David Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres, would have disapproved of the apparent choice by their successors.
A statement from the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization representing Israeli settlements, struck a similar chord.
“The Labor Party was once an active partner in the establishment of the settlements, and for this it deserves recognition and thanks,” it said. However, in a pointed dig, it went on to call on “all parties that view Zionism and settlement as an important value to participate in this festive event.”
Yesha chairman Yigal Dilmoni told The Times of Israel that Gabbay had received a personal phone call inviting him to the ceremony. Responding to reports that Gabbay refused to attend because he was not asked to speak, Dilmoni said that nobody was asked to address the state gathering other than the prime minister. “Not even a representative of the settlement movement is speaking,” he added.
Earlier Monday, the Peace Now settlement watchdog sent a letter to each member of the opposition, imploring them not to take part in the ceremony.
“There is no reason to celebrate. The essence of the event undermines the two-state vision, and there is no justification for taking part in it,” the letter read.
The group referred to the ceremony as “another step toward the creeping annexation policy of the Netanyahu government.”
It will be the fourth event in the West Bank that Netanyahu has addressed in the last three months.
In August, he spoke at a similar celebration marking 50 years of settlement in Samaria (the northern West Bank). Two weeks prior, he addressed a ceremony inaugurating a new neighborhood in Beitar Illit, a large ultra-Orthodox settlement south of Jerusalem. And in June, he spoke at an event installing a new medical school at Ariel University, which was funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Much of the international community views West Bank settlements as illegal and has frequently tried to pressure Israel to halt construction beyond the Green Line. The Palestinians say it is one of the major obstacles to reaching a peace deal.