Lawyers threaten to shut courts in 'a fight for our home'

Top attorneys launch campaign to ‘save the High Court’ from right-wing lawmakers

‘It’s inconceivable that because one man has a problem, the entire judicial system is going to be changed,’ says Dore Klagsblad, who represents Netanyahu benefactor Sheldon Adelson

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Supreme Court Chief Judge 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)
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Supreme Court Chief Judge 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)

Dozens of Israel’s top attorneys convened at a Tel Aviv law office on Monday to plan a public campaign “to defend the judicial system” from right-wing legislation seeking to curtail the powers of the High Court of Justice and up immunity for politicians.

The gathering, at the Goldfarb Seligman law office, drew some of the country’s best-known attorneys, including both candidates for the next chair of the Israel Bar Association, Avi Himi and Zion Amir, and included participants from Israel’s largest and most influential firms, including S. Horowitz & Co., Yigal Arnon, Herzog, Fox & Ne’eman, and Goldfarb Seligman itself.

A presentation at the gathering declared it as the launch of an “attorneys’ protest” and proclaimed, “You’ll have to go through us.”

The initiative comes to protest reported plans by Likud lawmakers and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pass legislation granting the premier immunity in multiple corruption cases — and additional legislation weakening the High Court of Justice so that it won’t have the power to overturn the first law.

The presentation at the attorneys’ gathering listed the group’s five principles as: “no to limiting judicial oversight of government actions by the High Court”; “no to changing the parliamentary immunity law”; “no to the politicization of the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court”; “no to the undermining of the gatekeepers of the public service”; and “yes to a clean, professional and fair judiciary.”

“We don’t know how each of us here votes politically, and in our daily lives we are competitors, but we’re all gathered here today, united by a tangible fear that the rule of law and Israel’s liberal democracy are in danger. We feel that the rule of law is dangling on the edge of a precipice,” said attorney Tzvika Bar Natan, a partner at Goldfarb Seligman who initiated the campaign.

Olmert attorney Eli Zohar speaking to reporters outside the Tel Aviv courtroom Monday. (photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Attorney Eli Zohar, who represented former prime minister Ehud Olmert in his corruption trials and has advised Israel’s largest corporations and security agencies, said he felt “this is a fight for my home, a battle that’s important to my children and grandchildren.”

The meeting Monday didn’t offer “a clear and organized plan of action,” Zohar said, “because we’re only just piecing that together. But we’re ready to take the most extreme step – shutting down the courts,” he warned.

Attorney Dore Klagsblad, who represents American Jewish billionaire – and Netanyahu patron – Sheldon Adelson’s interests in Israel, lashed the proposals to limit the High Court and grant immunity to a sitting prime minister.

“It’s inconceivable that because one man has a problem, the entire judicial system is going to be changed. It’s inconceivable that the Knesset won’t be subject to judicial oversight, because then the Knesset will be able to legislate that we should all be killed, and we won’t have anywhere to appeal that,” Klagsblad said.

Tzion Amir, attorney of former Israeli president Moshe Katsav on August 4, 2016. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Attorney Zion Amir, a well-known criminal lawyer who represented former president Moshe Katsav and many other celebrity defendants, said the meeting brought together “a group standing up to defend the rule of law and judicial principles.”

“We want to win this fight for the character of Israel, its society and democracy,” he said, cautioning the group to “remain calm,” but admitting there was a “feeling of urgency, of standing on the edge of a cliff.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February he intends to charge Netanyahu in three corruption cases, pending a hearing. Netanyahu faces fraud and breach of trust charges in all three, and a bribery in one.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing. He has alleged that the investigation, the subsequent police recommendation to charge him, and Mandelblit’s subsequent decision to press charges pending a final hearing constitute a witch hunt involving the political opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution.

A first full English translation of the interim charge sheet was published by The Times of Israel last week.

Prior to the April 9 elections, Netanyahu gave mixed signals when asked whether he would seek to evade prosecution by means of Knesset legislation to guarantee himself immunity, and additional legislation limiting the High Court of Justice’s ability laws, so that it won’t overturn the immunity law. On one occasion, in a late March television interview, he dismissed the idea but then backtracked within seconds. On May 15, a Channel 12 television report said Netanyahu had conclusively decided to legislate in order to avoid prosecution for as long as he remains in office. It said Netanyahu and members of his close circle had begun briefing Likud MKs “on how to market this to the public.”

Opposition politicians and some legal analysts have argued that the passage of retroactive legislation designed to render a prime minister and other Knesset members immune from prosecution for alleged offenses committed while in office, accompanied by legislation that would prevent the Supreme Court from overturning such a decision, would constitute a major breach of Israeli democratic norms.

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