Israel’s High Court of Justice just spent two full days hearing petitions against the continued rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the national-unity deal that he signed last month with Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz. The only thing good about the proceedings was that they were broadcast live. This not only gave viewers a glimpse into the workings of judicial activism, as well as a better understanding of the arguments on both sides of the dispute, but hopefully served to keep the robed men and women on the illustrious bench somewhat in check.
After all, these self-anointed demigods of democracy may have been able to fend off coronavirus droplets with surgical masks and plastic seat dividers, but the rest of us need protecting from the political power that the High Court wields far beyond its purview.
Ironically, judicial reform was a key element of Netanyahu and his Likud Party’s platform during all three rounds of Knesset elections, the first two of which resulted in political deadlock. Though the outcome of the third initially appeared to be pointing in a similar direction, the stalemate was resolved (if you can call it that) by the very coalition deal whose legitimacy is being determined—you guessed it—by the court.
To put it simply, this means that a panel of 11 judges will decide later this week on whether the Israeli people made the right choice of parliamentarians at the ballot box. If it weren’t so outrageous, it would be funny that one of the petitioners against Netanyahu and the coalition-in-the-making is the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a self-described “non-partisan” NGO, whose president, Eliad Shraga, played a starring role in the High Court hearings on Sunday and Monday.
Shraga came under fire two years ago from card-carrying members of the group who felt that he had turned it into a “radical left-wing organization that is calling for a coup [against Netanyahu].”
As Israel Hayom’s Akiva Bigman reported at the time, one such person expressed her ire on Facebook. “The movement has hidden its real face, with a façade of righteousness. I supported it and donated to it over the years, and I was naïve to think that they were actually fighting corruption in government, but then I realized that their crusades are highly selective: Their attacks on the Right are as strong as their forgiving attitude toward the Left,” she wrote.
Another posted: “I keep getting emails asking me to come to protests to demand better government. Some of the public feels that law enforcement’s degree of forgiveness or scrupulousness depends on whether the elected leaders are from the Right or from the Left. It’s not just a feeling.”
According to Bigman, the last straw for many now-former Movement for Quality Government members was a speech that Shraga delivered at an anti-corruption rally in January 2018. He said at the demonstration that the “appointment of MK David Amsalem as coalition chairman proves that the lessons of the past have not been learned; nothing has been internalized. The prime minister [Netanyahu] looked for a mentally challenged, sniveling thug [Amsalem], who could continue the assault on the police, the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Supreme Court.”
Shraga wasn’t the only disingenuous participant in this week’s hearings, however.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, too, was deserving of a rap on the knuckles, if not a refresher course in positions held by her predecessors, most notably Aharon Barak, who served as chief justice from 1995 to 2006.
In a veiled reference to Barak’s famous—or infamous—position, Netanyahu attorney Michael Rabello said that he’s aware that the “court’s stance is that everything is adjudicable.”
Before he had the chance to finish his sentence, the gist of which was that the democratically elected Knesset is the will of the people and therefore cannot be overturned by the courts, Hayut interrupted him.
“Nu, really,” she huffed. “This court has never stated that. … This populist claim is most unfortunate.”
Well, Barak certainly said it. Apparently, Hayut is the only person in Israel who wasn’t paying attention.
This is not to say that she and her fellow justices are going to rule that Netanyahu may not form and serve as the head of the next government, however. In the first place, the law does not prohibit him from doing so. Secondly, just as Netanyahu is not above the law, he is not beneath it either; he, like every other citizen, enjoys the presumption of innocence, which he has pled.
Finally, the Israeli people who voted for him knowing that he was under indictment consider the charges against him, which boil down to the attempt to bribe media outlets to give him more positive coverage, to be as contrived as they are ridiculous. A lot like the High Court hearings themselves.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”