Thursday, 9 July 2009
Ben Lynfield

Israel’s internal security service has been given a de facto veto over the appointment of judges in an unprecedented decision that has the country’s embattled liberals up in arms.

The move by the Judges Selection Committee on Friday is likely to make it harder for members of Israel’s Arab minority and others with views that are not mainstream to become judges, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (Acri). Zahava Galon, a former MP of the dovish Meretz party, said the decision was “a scandal”. She said: “We are turning into a kind of police state with Big Brother everywhere. A judge shouldn’t have to pass the Shin Bet’s tests. This is just something that isn’t done.”

The selection committee’s membership - partly determined by the ruling coalition - has become more nationalist and intent on limiting the power of the Supreme Court due to appointments made since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in April.

Increasing the powers of the security service, the Shin Bet, were part of an attempt to erode the judiciary’s ability to protect civil liberties and human rights in a country that lacked a constitution to defend them, Ms Galon said. The security establishment has always enjoyed wide powers but the Supreme Court was seen as a bastion of liberalism that counterbalanced that and helped define Israel as a democracy.

Dan Yakir, the chief legal counsel for Acri, called the step “troublesome”. But supporters of the change argue that it is necessary for “state security”.

Uri Ariel, a far-right MP newly appointed to the selection committee, said allowing Shin Bet to screen candidates was necessary because judges reviewed highly classified security information “and this can directly influence state security”.

“Until now, the clearance for judges was low even though they were seeing the most sensitive material. This was anomalous and inappropriate,” he said.

Mr Ariel said the screening would not apply to serving judges, only to new ones. The new policy was “experimental” and would be reviewed in a year.

The Shin Bet’s assessment is only a recommendation but it is thought unlikely that the committee would endorse those rejected by Shin Bet.

“I have never encountered an incident in which the government didn’t accept the Shin Bet’s advice,” said the human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, who is representing an Arab-Israeli whom the agency deemed inappropriate to serve as a mosque leader. Mr Sfard said he was “not surprised” by the move and that it fitted with the norm of the Shin Bet screening the appointments of high officials and educators in Arab schools. The difference in this case, he said, was that the agency’s role was being openly acknowledged.

The Shin Bet has asked for the power to screen judges in the past but has been rebuffed by the committee, which comprises judges and politicians.