Supreme Court head doubles down on skipping ‘political’ pro-settlement event

Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor on Wednesday reiterated the court’s opposition to participating in a state ceremony celebrating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank and Golan Heights, saying the judiciary should not be involved in “controversial” political events.

Responding to a petition from the pro-settlement Regavim group on her decision Tuesday to cancel Justice Neal Hendel’s attendance at Wednesday’s ceremony in the Etzion settlement bloc, Naor said it would be inappropriate for the court to attend a political event “devoted to one side.”

“The judicial system refrains from participating in any controversial political event, in particular when the entire stage is devoted to one side,” she said.

Naor said that to send a Supreme Court justice to the event would violate the court’s ethic rules.

“A judge shall not be involved in any political or party activity… A judge shall not take part in an event held by a party or other political body or in another framework with a political or party identity,” she said, quoting clauses from the court’s ethics rules.

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision to not send a representative to Wednesday’s ceremony, Naor said that in general “the judicial system participates and will continue to take part in state events as a matter of course and honors them with the presence of judges.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, in his response in the name of the state, contended that because it was an official state ceremony, it shouldn’t be considered political.

The site of the upcoming jubilee ceremony celebrating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank and Golan Heights, on September 26, 2017, in the Etzion settlement bloc. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) accused the chief justice of having “crossed a red line.”

“She is changing the rules of the government and determining what is official and what is not,” Regev told Army Radio.

Joining in the criticism, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said he was “surprised” by Naor’s decision and that it called into question the court’s ability to be an unbiased arbiter in cases concerning the West Bank.

“The decision of Supreme Court President Naor poses a question mark and casts a heavy pall over the Supreme Court’s ability to impartially judge issues relating to Judea and Samaria,” Liberman wrote on Facebook, using the biblical name for the West Bank.

Naor’s announcement Tuesday that it was “inappropriate” to send a representative to the event came in response to an appeal to the court from MK Issawi Frej (Meretz). The Supreme Court said Hendel, the justice who was originally slated to attend, had phoned the organizers personally to apologize for not attending.

The decision was met with condemnation from right-wing lawmakers and leaders of the West Bank communities, who have long accused the justices of holding left-wing political views.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked spoke with Naor and asked her to reverse her decision, telling her it was an official government event, not a political statement, Channel 1 news reported.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (L) and Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor attend a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges to the Supreme Court at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Wednesday’s ceremony at an industrial park in the Etzion Bloc, funded by the Culture and Education ministries to the tune of NIS 10 million ($2.8 million) and featuring a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has turned into a political lightning rod in recent days.

On Monday, Channel 1 reported that the opposition Yesh Atid and Zionist Union parties decided not only to skip the event, but to bar their MKs from attending. Within hours, both factions issued denials that any such “boycott,” as the report had called it, was in place.

Regev said she was “ashamed that a party that calls itself the Zionist Union” would not be attending the ceremony. She said that earlier leaders within the Labor movement, such as former prime ministers David Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres, would have disapproved of the apparent choice by their successors.

A statement from the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization representing Israeli settlements, struck a similar chord.

“The Labor Party was once an active partner in the establishment of the settlements, and for this it deserves recognition and thanks,” it said. However, in a pointed dig, it went on to call on “all parties that view Zionism and settlement as an important value to participate in this festive event.”

Earlier Monday, the Peace Now settlement watchdog sent a letter to each member of the opposition, imploring them not to take part in the ceremony.

“There is no reason to celebrate. The essence of the event undermines the two-state vision, and there is no justification for taking part in it,” the letter read.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony inaugurating a new neighborhood in the Beitar Illit settlement on August 3, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The group referred to the ceremony as “another step toward the creeping annexation policy of the Netanyahu government.”

It will be the fourth event in the West Bank that Netanyahu has addressed in the last three months.

In August, he spoke at a similar celebration marking 50 years of settlement in Samaria (the northern West Bank). Two weeks prior, he addressed a ceremony inaugurating a new neighborhood in Beitar Illit, a large ultra-Orthodox settlement south of Jerusalem. And in June, he spoke at an event installing a new medical school at Ariel University, which was funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Much of the international community views West Bank settlements as illegal and has frequently tried to pressure Israel to halt construction beyond the Green Line. The Palestinians say it is one of the major obstacles to reaching a peace deal. Most settlements are legal according to Israeli law — though Israel has never extended its sovereignty over the West Bank — and many see the area as Israel’s by historical and biblical right.