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As Smotrich promises 'a historic reform of judicial system'

Top justice: Courts will ‘stand strong’ in face of new coalition’s overhaul plans

‘We will weather the storm’: Hayut stresses commitment to ‘rule of law, judicial independence,’ as Netanyahu bloc prepares to pass law letting Knesset override High Court rulings

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut attends a hearing in Jerusalem on December 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut attends a hearing in Jerusalem on December 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut on Thursday vowed that the court system would weather the next government’s radical planned legal reforms and asserted the crucial importance of an independent judiciary.

The courts will “continue to stand strong even in light of the ‘lightning and thunder’ being seen and heard at this time,” Hayut said, in her first public reaction to the emerging reforms.

“They are directed against us and are likely signaling the arrival of the storm,” she told court managers at a cultural event. “But when the law, and the law alone, directs us — we will weather that too.”

The incoming coalition has vowed to pass a so-called override clause, enabling the Knesset to strike down High Court rulings with a minimal 61-strong majority, in addition to increasing politicians’ powers in appointing judges and many other controversial plans.

Some allies of presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have also floated legislation that could end his ongoing trial on corruption charges.

Hayut did not address any specific proposals in her remarks, but stressed the importance of an independent judiciary.

“I believe in this excellent and quality group of ours and am very proud of its important and professional work every day, which is done out of a commitment to the principles of the rule of law and judicial independence, which are the life breath of the judicial branch,” she said.

She also touted “the key role we have as judges in safeguarding the values and foundational principles on which the country was established.”

A High Court of Justice hearing on a petition demanding that the maritime border deal with Lebanon be brought for a Knesset vote, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, October 20, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Her remarks came as far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich, whose Religious Zionism party has championed many of the contentious legal proposals, pledged the new government “will advance a historic reform of the judicial system” after inking a coalition deal with Netanyahu.

Under the agreement, signed Thursday, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a leading architect of the party’s sweeping plan to clip the wings of the judiciary, will take the head of the Knesset’s influential Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, a key stop for legislating judicial reform.

Members of the expected new government’s proposed judicial changes — particularly the override clause — have been denounced by political rivals of Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc, prominent legal figures such as the head of the Israel Bar Association and a group of law professors.

Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties that are allied with Netanyahu have been the most vocal proponents of the override clause, though the demand is also backed by many in his own Likud party.

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich sign a coalition deal in Jerusalem on December 1, 2022. (Likud)

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has vowed to fight efforts to pass an override law and met last week with experts to hear how it would cause “critical harm to Israeli citizens, to their day-to-day lives and basic right.”

This issue of limiting the court’s power has developed over the last quarter of a century into a substantive point of dispute, first between the right and left and today between what might more accurately be described as Israel’s populist and liberal democratic camps.

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