The ruling by Justice Alex Stein is a recognition of the limits of the Supreme Court's authority to intervene in government policy
A dramatic ruling handed down this week by Supreme Court Justice Alex Stein wasn’t picked up by the public’s radar. After dozens of years of a mindset that everything can be taken to court, the Supreme Court has once again recognized the limits of its authority to intervene in government policy.
A group of Israelis from communities adjacent to Gaza petitioned the High Court, asking that it instruct the government not to give Hamas money donated by Qatar. For political reasons, the government decided to allow the transfer of funds to the Hamas leadership. It was a controversial decision and there is cause to wonder whether the policy will improve Israel’s diplomatic and security situation or worsen it. The decision also raises questions of principle. But as has been accepted practice here for a generation already, an issue of policy was brought before the Supreme Court.
Justice Stein expressed his sympathy for the petitioners’ distress, but rejected their petition and made it clear that it was not the court’s job to handle Israel’s foreign or security policy. Without taking a stance on the political question itself, Stein stressed that the government’s decision to transfer the Qatari funds to Hamas was not a legal question, and they could not expect the court to intervene. Thus, after three decades in which the Supreme Court has given itself the final say on political matters, it is now declaring that not everything can be decided in court.
Those who support the idea that the Supreme Court must remove its hand from political issues of foreign policy and security often warn that its intervention harms the public’s faith in the legislative system. They argue that every time the Supreme Court steps in to decide a controversial political matter, it hurts the belief in the system of those whose stance is not adopted. This is an important factor. But Stein laid out a much more significant explanation when he mentioned that foreign policy cannot be measured by legal criteria. Not only does the policy of taking everything to court not pay off; it isn’t even justified practically speaking.
We can illustrate the point using the High Court’s ruling on a petition against Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The High Court refused to reject the petition, arguing that it could not be decided in court. The court then began looking into whether the evacuation of settlers for political reasons could be justified on moral grounds and whether the disengagement was likely to improve or weaken Israel’s political and security status. Ten justices decided that settlers could be evacuated for political reasons and that the disengagement would improve Israel’s security. One justice decided the opposite and sought to order that the disengagement be stopped.
The question arises: What professional tools did each justice use to reach his or her decision? They were addressing the same political questions that divided the public at the time into those wearing orange ribbons (in solidarity with the settlers and against the disengagement) and those wearing blue (in support of disengagement.) When a judges rule on matters of foreign policy and security, their rulings rest on their own political views. What justification is there to give the political worldview of these judges priority over that of the citizens who elected the government? How does a political issue become a “professional” one that is handed over to experts to be decided?
It is important to emphasize that the restoration of limits to what can be decided by the courts extends beyond the courts themselves to the legal counsel given to the government and the Knesset. Because diplomatic issues became matters to be decided by courts, legal counsels have become part of the decision-making process on diplomatic issues. Stein’s ruling will restore elected officials’ responsibility and authority to decide on policy. Stein ruled correctly that “our government answers to the Knesset and the voters, not to us.”