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Netanyahu Denies He Intends to Curb Supreme Court Power

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied that he is contemplating moves to curb the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court.

In an official clarification issued Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office said comments Netanyahu made to this effect that were published by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv had been misunderstood by the paper.

Netanyahu said his comments to the newspaper on this matter had been theoretical, but his quick effort to squelch the quoted remarks demonstrated the sensitivity of the issue.

The issue is currently at the heart of a major political controversy in Israel.

The Orthodox parties, along with some Likud members, feel that the Supreme Court, and particularly Chief Justice Aharon Barak, is too “activist” and liberal in its interpretation of laws.

Religious Jews have assailed Barak about his rulings recognizing gay rights and women’s rights.

But the hostility toward the chief justice boiled over with the court’s recent decision to keep Bar Ilan Street, a main Jerusalem thoroughfare that passes through religious neighborhoods, open to traffic on the Sabbath.

The court’s ruling overturned a decision by Minister of Transportation Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party to close the street during hours of prayer on the Sabbath and religious holidays.

An article last month in the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, published by the fervently Orthodox Degal HaTorah Party, blasted Barak as a “dangerous enemy” of religious Jews.

In recent weeks, Barak and other justices have received telephone threats.

Security has been stepped up around the Jerusalem home of Barak, who recently said, according to a court source, that he was determined to preserve the rule of law in Israel and that “no individual will scare him.”

Netanyahu has urged tough police action to apprehend those issuing the threats, saying he would not tolerate “lawlessness” in Israeli society.

But some members of the legal community fault him for not speaking out forcefully enough against religious and conservative politicians who are campaigning for a reduction in the Supreme Court’s powers.

The fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community has long complained that the Supreme Court issues rulings that contravene the beliefs and needs of Orthodox Jews.

The Orthodox parties are seeking to have greater say in the appointments of Supreme Court justices and want greater powers for the Knesset to circumvent the high court’s rulings.

Ma’ariv quoted Netanyahu as saying he had been meeting with “eminent jurists, rabbis and academics” to discuss the separation of powers between the court and the Knesset.

Netanyahu told the paper there was “no need for quotas” in an effort to appoint judges of various ideological stripes.

But he added that it was legitimate to consider the question of the court’s sphere of authority in relation to the legislature.

“This is a fundamental issue, by no means simple, which we have to deal with as the state matures,” Ma’ariv quoted the premier as saying.

“We will not be able to avoid it, and I intend to work out my own opinion on it in the months ahead.”

Opposition spokesmen, among them former Justice Minister David Liba’i, immediately charged that Netanyahu was giving in to Orthodox pressures to cut down the Supreme Court’s power and that he was thereby dealing a serious blow to the rule of law in Israel.

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