Conservative judge seeks presidency of Israel's high court in new challenge to embattled judiciary

JERUSALEM (AP) — A junior conservative justice on Wednesday launched a bid to become president of Israel's Supreme Court, an unprecedented move that legal scholars said is yet another challenge to the tribunal's independence as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government advances with its plan to overhaul the judiciary.

In Israel's 75-year history, the committee that selects the president of the country's top court has always nominated the most senior judge for the position. With the court's current president, Esther Hayut, due to retire in October, Judge Yosef Elron's decision to throw his name in the ring as her replacement represents a departure from tradition.

Isaac Amit, the justice set to replace Hayut under the seniority system, is a liberal who has sat on the court for over a decade. Elron, who joined the court in 2017 and is considered its most conservative justice, is believed to be favored by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the chief architect of the contentious judicial overhaul.

By shattering the tradition of seniority appointment, Elron's bid threatens to further politicize the court as justices potentially compete against one another for committee votes, legal experts say.

“People see this as another move of the overhaul and serious evidence of a change in the justice system,” said Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. “Once the seniority precedent is gone, then all the justices know that they are being judged by the coalition in power, and their independence is undermined."

Constitutional law professor Amichai Cohen said while Elron is unlikely to be chosen as president of the court, his bid threatens to exacerbate discord between liberal and conservative justices ahead of two key decisions next month on the limits of the court's power.

Levin, a key Netanyahu ally, has sought to change the composition of the committee that selects the nation's judges, including the president of the Supreme Court, through legislation in Israel's parliament. Since that legislation stalled, Levin has refused to convene the committee.

In September, the Court will hear petitions challenging Levin's decision to freeze committee meetings. The Court will also hear challenges to the first measure of the judicial overhaul, which Netanyahu's government passed in July.

The supporters of Netanyahu’s far-right, ultra-Orthodox government say the law will prevent liberal, unelected judges from interfering with the decisions of elected lawmakers. They also say the court should not be able to rule on a law limiting its own authority.

The overhaul has prompted months of massive protests. But if the court strikes down the new legislation, Netanyahu’s government could ignore the ruling, setting the stage for a crisis over who has ultimate authority.