Warning: a long post ahead!
This post is a continuation of the post Be careful what you wish for, Yoel. The wave of legislative activism that provides rich background to the subject and is partly outlined in this post, doesn't seem to be abating. On the other hand, there are some new interesting articles on the topic.
In general, Israel's founding fathers and the heterogeneous population of the time have taken the need for democratic character of the state as granted. Possibly (I am not an historian) this was the chief reason* that the mechanisms of democratic institutions are oversimplified, basic and don't provide much in the way of protecting the democracy, since it's taken for granted anyway. Lack of constitution, unicameral parliament (that allows almost unchecked rule of unrestrained majority), insufficient separation of executive and legislative branches - all this technically is a source of potential trouble - if and when. The only clearly separated branch - the judiciary - was and still is the main watchdog** of democracy, monitoring both executive and legislative branches.
As a pinnacle of our judiciary, the Supreme Court has almost always been beyond reproach, standing fast on watch over both the government behavior and the undue friskiness of the Knesset as far as wild legislative ideas are concerned. Granted, sometimes this meant that Supreme Court has undertaken tasks beyond its initially designed mandate and this so called "judicial activism" angered many politicians*** over the years.
Our short memories: the power of perception
As we all have had time to learn, public memory is a short term mechanism, readily erasing the past in favor of the scoop on next front page of newspaper or on an Internet site. The case of the supposed Supreme Court left wing bias is another demonstration of this mechanism of forgetting. As it happened to be, since the watershed victory of Likud led by Menachem Begin in the 1977 elections, the left had been at the helm only for a few short periods. By the nature of its duty, Supreme Court deals with (many) wrong-doings of the public offices of all kinds. Needless to say, a lot of cases put before the court end up in a ruling against the powers that be. Should I expand on how the situation is perceived? Clearly you understand that Supreme Court that so frequently rules against the right wing government is perceived as a left wing conspiracy...
In this regard, I advise you all to read the article The rightists' revenge by Hagai Segal. Short and succinct, it doesn't leave a shadow of a doubt about Supreme Court being used by both sides as a football in their unending game of offense and revenge. Much as the current ruling coalition feels the Supreme Court being a bone stuck in their collective throat, same sentiments were the burden of the leftist coalitions of the past. With one difference: at the time Supreme Court was reviled as the fortress of right wing ideology.
So what else is new, ladies and gentlemen? There is a built-in mechanism that defines the Supreme Court behavior:
The Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, has several functions, including exercising judicial review over the various branches of government, and is empowered by the Basic Law: The Judiciary to “grant relief in the interests of justice.”Live with it.
The High Court is a court of first instance for petitions against the legality of decisions made by state authorities, including local authorities, and can also rule on petitions that call into question the constitutionality of laws approved by Knesset.
The way many members of the ruling coalition are going about entering proposals for new outlandish and embarrassing laws, it looks like they don't believe in their personal political tomorrow and are frenetically trying to leave a trace, fishy smelling as it may be, on Israeli legislative landscape. Scant thought is given to the implications, including these that may in the future struck the current lawmakers themselves like a boomerang. An over-the-top article Goodbye, Israeli democracy by Asaf Gefen, while being too hysterical for my taste, offers a few satirical ideas, like the one regarding the Supreme Court candidates 'Hearing law':
Hence, we should not settle for a mere hearing consisting of questions and answers – a format that may, heaven forbid, deteriorate into actual discussion – but rather, adopt the much more appropriate format of Reality TV auditions. Supreme Court candidates would be asked to prepare a song, dance, or cook their favor dish, which they shall present to members of the Knesset panel. The panel would then rule who goes home and who shall continue with us to the next High Court of Justice case.I am not sure about this format, but I wholeheartedly agree with his characterization of the proposed panel of MKs that will decide on the candidatures: "most of them would not even be hired as soccer referees," he say. One thing for sure - some of them will experience the wrath of courts on their own hide sooner or later, to become another subject of a criminal trial procedure and, eventually, jailbirds, as is the way of many a politico in our country...
Ehehe... now judge by yourself: do we or don't we need an alert and proactive Supreme Court in a country where an MK tries to push through an initiative like this one:
MK Ze’ev had suggested that the Minister of Interior issue regulations which stipulate that Katzav's house is a prison in order to prevent a situation in which a former president is imprisoned.Meaning that, if the surreal idea is accepted, a convicted rapist will receive a "get out of jail" card just because he served in an important public role? The learned MK doesn't care what it does to the law and order in the country, never mind to our basic perception of justice.
And, meanwhile, our democracy isn't doing so good. Being number 37 on the list and defined as "flawed democracy" as well isn't such a hot position, I dare say. Not to mention (again) that corruption index (see remark ***).
The unbearable lightness of legislation
A good example of a destructive romance with the legislative mechanisms is MK Danny "Israel is too democratic" Danon. His mental processes, being exceedingly simple for natural reasons, suffer from a two steps limitation, again due to same natural reasons. Step 1: there is a problem. Step 2: create a law that resolves it. The laws that Mr Danon submits are very simple too (I shall refrain from using the word "stupid"). Here are a few samples of his "activism":
- Somebody (not Mr Danon) pushes through a bill that limits foreign donations to local NGOs. The bill is expected to meet with fierce resistance, partly from same NGOs. Danny has to solve this issue, so he says "no problems, folks" and submits a bill that will prevent the NGOs from appealing to Supreme Court.
- Some retired high level government employees (see the case of ex-Mossad chief, Meir Dagan) are too vocal in their criticism of our government? No worries, here comes MK Danon with a new law: "The law will require a year of media silence on all security matters, to contribute to the security integrity of Israel." What the heck is "security integrity", by the way?
- Some people (in Israel and without) demand some kind of a peace agreement with Palestinians, no matter how close to impossible the idea is? Are you disturbed by these voices? Don't fret, here comes Danny Danon: "Deputy Knesset Speaker MK Danny Danon will formally propose a law Monday that would make Israel sovereign over Judea and Samaria." Ain't our Danny cool?
- Israel is from time to time pardoning terrorists (unfortunately). Said terrorists frequently return to their preferred line of business, terrorism. Consider this not to be a problem anymore, cause MK Danon is ready with a bill that will rescind the pardons. We have to catch the terrorists first? No worries, here is a bill that will order them to check in...
- Some (not very nice, I agree) people in Israel support some other not very nice people who boycott (or call to boycott) Israel? Consider it solved, here comes Danny with a bill that will punish the vermin...
- Obesity issue? You can forget it, Danny has the solution: a bill that will forbid displaying sweets at the checkout counter.
(A headline Stopping 'superbugs' in their tracks just caught my attention. "Scientists and researchers must quickly develop new strategies to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistant 'superbugs.'", says the lede. Maybe Danny Danon could squeeze a new law into his busy schedule, you know, one where he forbids the superbugs by the powers of his lawmaking?)
Now do you still think that Supreme Court shouldn't be involved with this gushing fountain?
OK, and how about Bibi?
Bibi's stance on the whole business of legislative piracy is equivocal. On one hand, he is straightjacketed by his colorful (to say the least) coalition, many members of which could easily outshine even the above mentioned Danny Danon. And frequently do so.
On the other hand (and I am saying it with a sizable grain of salt), he seems to understand the problem caused by the overly zealous (or overly mad) MKs trying to curb the powers of judiciary.
Channeling Menachem Begin’s famous words that “there are judges in Jerusalem,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu related on Tuesday to the current controversies surrounding the Supreme Court by saying “there will be independent judges in Jerusalem.”Not to be passed over: on the way to the conference room, Bibi got stuck in an elevator for half an hour or so (article in Hebrew). So who knows - it could have been a result of a shock?
Netanyahu, speaking to a convention of state attorneys in Eilat, pledged to “protect the independence of the courts, which is a necessary condition to our existence here. This is no less important than security or economics.”
In this regard I have to mention an exceptional (for Haaretz) article by By Yehuda Ben Meir, concluded by the following statement:
I believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is, indeed, a democrat. He will be tested by his determined stand against the murky wave of those Knesset members who "want to rule."What can I say? Unless Bibi is more concerned with the international image and says what he says for external consumption, rather than really acting on his words, we may still hope that he will recall the Knesset attack dogs. And as soon as possible too.
Our judiciary in general and Supreme Court in particular are the backbone of our democracy and the only truly independent institution guarding it (the democracy) from being deformed and corrupted by various forces busily digging under its foundations - both from the left and from the right. Attacking the court for doing its job the best way it is able to is extremely unwise. Telling the Supreme Court how to do its job requires not only the power to pass cheap legislation, granted to MKs by the democracy they are frequently abusing by such legislation. It requires some moral fiber and mental abilities coupled with understanding of the law that, unfortunately, many of our elected parliamentarians simply don't possess.
And no less important: the issue is not to be confined to the incessant left vs right brawls. We all must do anything to protect the judiciary from becoming a punching bag for our politicos. We'll sell our future down the river if it happens. Independence of the courts is indeed "a necessary condition to our existence here".
And I would go wrong without pointing to a totally different opinion: Supreme Court is danger to Israeli democracy by David Eliezrie, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County (California). Oh well...
(*) That and the ingrained Russian/East European habit of not worrying too much about tomorrow's problems. "יהיה בסדר" - "ihye beseder" - "everything will be fine" - is, after all, the most frequently used Israeli idiom.
(**) Sorry, it is not the so called "free press", which in our case became a bailiwick of a very few tycoons' families.
(***) And not only politicians, but some eminent law experts, like Daniel Friedmann. Prof. Friedmann looks at the whole picture as at a detached exercise performed in the ideal political structure, disregarding, I am afraid, the sordid reality of the state that once again got lower on the scale of the global corruption index:
Israel has fallen to 36th place in Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, tying with St. Vincent and the Grenadines, down from 30th place in 2010 and its lowest-ever ranking since it was first included in the index. This year's index covered 183 countries. Israel's score fell from 6.1 points in 2010 to 5.8 points in 2011.This sad fact doesn't seem to bother our executive and legislative branches too much...
(****) Here I can't avoid quoting the famous words of the Russian Kozma Prutkov: "If you have a fountain - plug it, let the fountain rest too."