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Israeli government accused of curbing court independence

by Jeffrey Heller, Reuters

January 3, 2012 | 2:03 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in Jerusalem on Jan. 1. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in Jerusalem on Jan. 1. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative government came under attack on Tuesday for promoting legislation that critics said would weaken the independence of Israel’s judiciary.

Parliament on Monday passed a government-backed amendment that paves the way for a judge perceived by right-wing lawmakers as an ally to be appointed chief of the Supreme Court.

In a country that does not have a constitution, the Supreme Court is widely respected as an independent-minded watchdog over the legislature and guarantor of civil rights.

Separate legislation that would change the composition of a legal committee appointing Supreme Court judges also received preliminary approval on Monday. Critics say if the bill is finalized, the committee will be packed with more right-wingers.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, of the centrist Kadima party, accused Netanyahu of trying to “change the character of the nation.”

Some of the criticism even came from within Netanyahu’s Likud party. “Perhaps it would be better to just write into the law who we want to be appointed,” Cabinet Minister Michael Eitan sarcastically told Army Radio.

Netanyahu has insisted he will protect the independence of the judiciary. Israeli media reported on Tuesday that his government, which had originally backed the legal committee bill, might now backtrack.

The other change is final and allows for the appointment of Asher Grunis as chief justice next month. The amendment changes an age restriction that would have disqualified Grunis.

Yaakov Katz of the far-right National Union party, who first proposed the bill, on his website called Grunis “an asset to the legal world in Israel.”

Editing by Kevin Liffey

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