Israel parliament approves law on top court judges

January 3, 2012 - 7:11 AM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Ronen Zvulun, Pool)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli lawmakers have pushed ahead contentious legislation that critics say undermines the independence of the country's Supreme Court and is part of a broader assault by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government on Israel's democracy.

Late Monday, the parliament approved a law changing the rules for who can become the next chief justice of Israel's Supreme Court. Critics say the law was engineered to put a conservative judge favored by the government at the court's helm next month.

Separately, a parliamentary panel approved an especially contentious bill that critics say would let lawmakers stack the committee that selects Supreme Court judges.

The Supreme Court — the sole check on the Israeli legislature — is widely seen as a guardian of liberal democracy, and over the years it has often ruled against the government. Many members of Netanyahu's coalition consider the court too liberal and want to make it friendlier to governing nationalists, though the prime minister has vowed to uphold the court's independence.

The newly approved law would enable conservative Supreme Court Justice Asher Grunis to stand for chief justice. Until now, the chief justice was required to be able to serve at least three years before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. That standard would have disqualified Grunis, the favored candidate of the bill's sponsors.

The new law reduces the requirement to two years.

Detractors of the bill say they are not so much troubled by the candidate as they are by what they see as an attempt by legislators to hijack the judicial appointments process.

The second bill, which now heads to the full parliament for approval, would invalidate the results of the recent election the Israeli Bar Association held to select its two representatives to the nine-member committee of judges, lawyers and politicians that appoints judges to Israeli courts as well as the Supreme Court's chief justice.

The second bill's sponsors want to rewrite the rules to ensure that one of the Bar representatives be identified with the governing coalition, with the second from the opposition. Parliament already picks two members of the committee.

Lawmaker Yariv Levin of Netanyahu's Likud, a vocal critic of the court, called the bill "a battle against the monarchist system of appointments" to the court, the Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported.

The bill generated an uproar among opposition lawmakers and within Likud itself.

On Tuesday, Likud Cabinet Minister Gideon Saar called the attempt to void the results of the legal group's elections "a dangerous precedent." Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party, who once served as justice minister, called the bill "twisted."

President Shimon Peres, who usually refrains from commenting on political matters, warned on Monday that undermining judiciary independence "is liable to wreak historic political damage on any country, including Israel."

Critics have accused the Netanyahu government of embarking on a dangerous crusade to stifle the press, harass liberal groups and mold the court in its nationalist image.

Israel's top journalists have warned of an anti-media blitz by the government through political appointments to the country's public broadcasting system, sidelining prominent critics and a new libel law that could put a chill on investigative reports.

One of Israel's two commercial TV stations is on the brink of closing shop because lawmakers have refused to grant it a one-year extension on an $11 million royalty bill owed to the state.

Netanyahu allies say the decision was purely financial. But station executives, along with commentators in the media, say the government is punishing the station for investigative pieces that embarrassed the prime minister and political allies.

Other pieces of controversial legislation advanced by the Netanyahu government include a bill that would dramatically limit foreign funding of dovish groups critical of the state and laws that would require non-Jewish immigrants to take loyalty oaths and punish Israelis who advocate boycotting Jewish settlements.