Analysis from Israel
…and it was perpetrated not by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, but by the Supreme Court.

One particularly ugly aspect of the war between Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and the Supreme Court is the depths of hypocrisy to which the justices have sunk.

Consider, for instance, former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner’s address to a conference at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute last week. “A constitutional coup is occurring in which the government is seizing control of the judiciary,” she proclaimed.

Another former justice, Yitzhak Zamir, added specifics. “The justice minister began unilaterally, without consulting [the justices],” he complained. And: “[Judicial] independence requires the minister to waive his powers to appoint [court] presidents and deputy presidents; Minister Friedmann must withdraw his proposal to appoint search committees [for these appointments].”

Given that thus far, Friedmann has succeeded in effecting exactly one minor change – term limits for court presidents – quite how the government is “seizing control of the judiciary” is unclear. Even more outrageous, however, is the claim that when ministers and legislators actually do their constitutionally mandated jobs, this constitutes a “constitutional coup.”

THE BASIC Law: The Judiciary, for instance, lists various issues on which the Knesset must enact legislation – including the appointment of court presidents. Thus when the Knesset enacted Friedmann’s term limits proposal into law, it was exercising an authority mandated by the Basic Law, which the Supreme Court itself considers constitutional legislation.

Nor did Friedmann exceed his authority by proposing the bill: The cabinet is authorized to propose legislation on any issue. Yet in Dorner’s Orwellian universe, these exercises of constitutionally mandated authority constitute a “constitutional coup.”

Similarly, by law, only the justice minister can appoint court presidents (after consulting with the Supreme Court president); Friedmann’s search committees are meant to help him exercise this legally mandated authority more wisely. Moreover, the court itself has ruled repeatedly that a minister may not abdicate responsibility for decisions entrusted to him by law.

Yet in Zamir’s Orwellian universe, what Friedmann ought to do is violate the law – as previous justice ministers did – by ceding his legally mandated responsibility to the Supreme Court president.

Likewise, under existing constitutional law, the one branch of government with no role in the legislative process is the judiciary. Thus by refusing to consult the justices about legislation, Friedmann was honoring the constitutionally mandated separation of powers between the branches of government. Yet in the justices’ Orwellian universe, proper behavior means disregarding such constitutional niceties.

THE ABOVE examples, however, are only the tip of the hypocrisy iceberg – because, as MK Reuven Rivlin correctly told the conference, a constitutional coup actually has occurred. And it was perpetrated not by Friedmann, but by the Supreme Court.

In 1949, shortly after Israel’s establishment, elections were held for a body that would serve as both a constitutional convention and the first Knesset. In 1950, that body decided that the constitution should be enacted piecemeal, with each subsequent Knesset retaining the original’s constitution-making powers; that decision was never revoked.

To this day, therefore, the Knesset is the only body authorized to enact constitutional legislation.

Yet in 1992, then Supreme Court president Aharon Barak proclaimed a “constitutional revolution.” Two newly enacted Basic Laws, he declared, were not only constitutional legislation; but for the first time, they empowered the court to overturn ordinary Knesset legislation.

Given that the laws passed by votes of 23-0 and 32-21, respectively, their constitutional status is dubious: No other democracy has a “constitution” approved by a mere quarter of the legislature. Moreover, not only did neither law explicitly empower the court to overturn legislation, but an article that would have done so was removed during the Knesset’s deliberations – leading many MKs who voted for the laws to conclude that they did not confer this power.

Thus Barak’s “constitutional revolution” was essentially a judicial rewrite of the existing constitution, with no mandate from the only body authorized to make such amendments: the Knesset.

BUT NOT content with this, the court has since usurped an even more basic Knesset function: the power to enact constitutional legislation. Since 1948, for instance, the Knesset has considered – and rejected – no fewer than 15 proposed Basic Laws on “social rights,” such as employment or welfare. One such bill was voted down at the very same time as the 1992 Basic Laws were enacted; four others have been proposed and rejected since. Thus clearly, the Knesset (a) does not believe that the 1992 Basic Laws encompassed social rights, and (b) does not want to confer such rights.

Yet in 2004, the court ruled that one of the 1992 laws, Human Dignity and Liberty, did grant constitutional status to social rights, such as the “right” to a court-ordered minimum welfare allowance. In short, it not only created a new constitutional “right” without Knesset authorization, it created one that the Knesset had explicitly rejected. It thus effectively declared that the Knesset has no role in the constitutional process at all: It is not needed to enact constitutional legislation, and may not even prevent the court from doing so.

NOR WAS this a one-time aberration. In 2006, for instance, a majority of the court added two more “rights” – equality and the right to marry – to Human Dignity and Liberty, even though the Knesset, due to lack of consensus, had deliberately excluded these rights from the law. In short, to quote Rivlin, “the judge has replaced the legislature and made it superfluous.”

Rivlin also correctly identified the proper remedy: The Knesset must enact a Basic Law “that delimits clear boundaries to the powers of each branch [of government] and [determines] when the Supreme Court may interpret the constitution, the limits to court intervention and when legislation must be enacted by the sole representative of Israel’s sovereign [citizenry] – namely, the Knesset.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the real problem with Friedmann’s initiatives: Despite much grandiose talk about doing precisely that, in practice, he has moved forward only on trivial issues such as search committees and term limits for court presidents. And he has thereby allowed the real constitutional coup – the judicial one – to continue unchecked.

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Finally, a peace plan that takes Resolution 242 seriously

Ever since the Trump administration published its Mideast peace plan, critics have vociferously claimed that it “violates U.N. resolutions” and “challenges many of the internationally agreed parameters” guiding peacemaking since 1967. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this is the first plan that actually relates seriously to the document every plan cites as the basis for those parameters: U.N. Security Council Resolution 242.

The resolution was adopted in November 1967, five months after Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, eastern Jerusalem and Sinai Peninsula in the Six-Day War. But contrary to popular belief, it was carefully crafted to let Israel keep some of this territory by demanding a withdrawal only from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” rather than “the territories” or “all the territories.”

As America’s then U.N. ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, later said, the omitted words “were not accidental … the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.” Lord Caradon, the British ambassador to the United Nations who drafted the resolution, explained, “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.”

The reason was that, in the resolution’s own words, a “just and lasting peace” would require “secure and recognized boundaries” for all states in the region. But the 1967 lines (aka the 1949 armistice lines) did not and could not provide secure boundaries for Israel. As Goldberg explained, the resolution called for “less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces” precisely because “Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure.” And since Israel had captured these territories in a defensive rather than offensive war, the drafters considered such territorial changes fully compatible with the resolution’s preamble “emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

But then, having successfully defeated the Arab/Soviet demand that Israel be required to cede “all the territories,” America abandoned its hard-won achievement just two years later, when it proposed the Rogers Plan. That plan called for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines with only minor adjustments (since nobody back then envisioned a Palestinian state, the West Bank would have returned to Jordan, even though Jordan had illegally occupied it in 1948).

This formula made a mockery of Resolution 242 because it failed to provide Israel with “secure boundaries.” Yet almost every subsequent proposal retained the idea of the 1967 lines with minor adjustments, even as all of them continued paying lip service to 242.

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