Israel’s new Minister of Justice, Amir Ohana, seems not to understand his role in a way the rest of the country does: he is a stuffed shirt warming the seat for a few months until the next election on September 17.
The first openly gay cabinet minister in Israel, he seems oblivious to the fact that he owes much of his personal legal emancipation to the left, social progressives and the Israeli Supreme Court–all of which he derides in extreme terms.
Ohana entered the Knesset in December 2015 (following elections in March of that year), after two Likud members further up the list resigned. Likud spins him as a “senior” member of the party. Not so much.
What he is, however, is a Benjamin Netanyahu loyalist—a valuable asset for an embattled prime minister in the political fight for his life. Netanyahu faces imminent criminal indictments on charges of bribery and breach of trust in several cases. Ohana has been among the more outspoken Likudniks supporting Netanyahu’s push for an Immunity Law that would provide him with immunity from prosecution for as long as he is in office.
And then, last week, Ohana went further. Much further.
Addressing a convention of the Israeli Bar Association on June 10, Ohana attacked the judiciary for being the “least democratic” of the three branches of government. He attacked the judiciary for failing to reflect the will of the people and being unaccountable to the political process. For a lawyer, he seems astonishingly unaware of how an independent judiciary functions.
Ohana’s views are shared by another Netanyahu pit bull, MK Miki Zohar, who insisted that the judiciary should modify its legal opinions and decisions to reflect the will of the electorate. After all, he said, “the people are sovereign.” In other words, should Likud get the most votes of any single party, that alone is a compelling reason to postpone prosecution of the prime minister. Zohar’s logic: A vote for Likud is a vote for Bibi, which means the people want Bibi as prime minister, not a defendant in a criminal trial.
Zohar conveniently ignores two important points. First, 70 percent of the Israeli public, including right-wing voters, oppose immunity for Bibi. Second, sometimes, even in a democracy, the voters are not right. That is precisely why we have an independent judiciary to check and manage erratic swings and shifts in the public mood that do not align with legal precedent or societal norms. Jurisprudential responsibility, just like governing, is not a popularity contest.
Any democracy would shudder when its minister of justice attacks the integrity of the bench, going so far as to suggest that judicial decisions do not always have to be followed. Ohana seems to have done just that in a lengthy interview last week with one of Israel’s main television political reporters.
Ohana’s musings, more suited to a dictatorship, sure turned heads in Israel. The following day, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut blasted Ohana, saying his views would lead Israel to anarchy.
Fortunately, Bibi did step up a day after Ohana’s trashing of the Supreme Court—and the judiciary, generally—to remind the nation, and his top justice official, that court decisions bind everyone, even those who disagree with them.
Then, there are reports (roundly denied by all concerned, of course) that this elevation of an openly gay man to such a critical cabinet post, has not gone down well with the ultra-orthodox MKs who are critical to Bibi’s retention of power. Also denied are reports that Bibi assured his Haredi allies that Ohana is just a placeholder, a prop to present Likud as a more LGBT friendly option for the elections and that, of course, he will be turfed out after the next election.
Ohana sits within a party that is determined to form a coalition with the politically and religiously far-right. Likud talks a “right-wing” game but is dependent on the ultra-orthodox and quite extreme modern orthodox leaders who are beyond hardline on, well, everything.
Bezalel Smotrich, who co-leads with Rafi Peretz the Union of Right-Wing Parties, was angling hard for the Justice portfolio, saying that Bibi had promised it to him before the election in return for his support. In what may be one of the most knuckleheaded political statements, ever, Smotrich told an audience in early June that Israel should “restore the Torah justice system” as in the “days of King David.”
It is unclear if Ohana understands that he is allied with a group of politicians who would smack their lips should the independent judiciary cease to prevail; particularly if they had the power to override the court on matters of social policy, which they would surely love to do. MK Ohana would not fare well.
Bibi has resorted to the least impressive of his party caucus to explain his maneuvers, which increasingly seem to be the desperate actions of a man focused on his personal fate as the foremost priority.