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Judicial reform bills pass first Knesset vote after raucous debate

The bills, which passed in first reading by a vote of 63 to 47, seek to change how judges are selected and prohibit the Supreme Court from weighing in on basic laws.

The Knesset plenum in Jerusalem. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
The Knesset plenum in Jerusalem. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The Knesset on Tuesday passed in first reading two pieces of legislation related to the government’s judicial reform plan following a noisy six-hour-plus debate that ended after midnight.

Both bills passed by a vote of 63 to 47.

The first bill seeks to amend Basic Law: The Judiciary so that the Supreme Court can’t invalidate basic laws, which are considered to have quasi-constitutional status in Israel.

The second bill would change the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee to give elected officials a majority in choosing judges both for the Supreme Court and lower courts.

Throughout the evening, opposition and coalition MKs traded barbs as they mounted the Knesset podium.

Minister of Justice Yariv Levin said, “I hear the false claims about the end of democracy. You know deep down that what we’re doing is to restore democracy and return Israel to the family of democratic nations.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party, said: “I only ask myself one thing—if you still care. If you care that what you are doing today is breaking up the Israeli economy and driving money out of it. You are hurting the weaker sections of Israeli society.”

Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, kicked off the debate at around 6:00 p.m. by presenting the two bills from the Knesset podium.

“The Supreme Court is the one that harmed judicial authority. Only those who ‘have the right stuff,’ only those who ‘are part of the family’ are eligible to become a judge in the Supreme Court,” Rothman said, referring to the right-wing consensus that the country’s top judges are tapped from a small group of like-minded individuals.

Added Rothman: “After this bill will pass its first reading this evening, we’ll still be waiting and waiting for responsible leaders from the opposition to answer the call of the state’s president for dialogue.”

Rothman referred to the refusal of opposition leaders to answer Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s request that the two sides come together to work out their differences. Rothman and Minister of Justice Yariv Levin also made overtures last week to the opposition to meet at the President’s Residence. Those offers were rebuffed.

(Lapid earlier in the day blamed the coalition for the failure of talks: “The government pretends to be interested in talks, but this is a lie.”)

During Rothman’s speech, members of the opposition frequently shouted “shame.” As Rothman took to the podium, opposition members waved Israeli flags contrary to parliamentary regulations. The flags were confiscated by Knesset guards.

Also during Rothman’s speech, a tussle broke out in the Knesset’s Visitor’s Gallery and at least one man was seen carried off by guards after demonstrators entered the area and beat against the security glass. They were later identified as student protesters.

Just before the Knesset debate was set to start, a group of protesters attempted to break through the barricades in front of the Knesset building. They were prevented from doing so by police, Channel 11 reported.

In the afternoon, 20,000 demonstrators protested against the reform by marching in the streets surrounding the Knesset. At times, they blocked traffic, leading to clashes between drivers and protesters. Most were dispersed by police by evening and the roads reopened to traffic, according to Channel 11.

Protesters also blocked Highway 1 leading from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Azrieli Junction in Tel Aviv, and several other intersections.

The first phase of the government’s judicial reform program was unveiled on Jan. 4. It calls for a series of changes in addition to the bills just passed.

They include passing an “override clause,” which would allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws struck down by the court; abolishing the legal justification of reasonableness by which judges cancel Knesset decisions based on whether they consider them “reasonable”; and empowering ministers to hire and fire their legal advisers and decide whether or not to follow those advisers’ opinions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected as “baseless” claims by critics that the reforms would mark the end of the country’s democracy, and vowed to implement them “responsibly.”

“The truth is that the balance between the branches of government has been violated over the past two decades. This unusual phenomenon does not exist anywhere else in the world—not in the United States, not in Western Europe and not during Israel’s first 50 years of existence,” said Netanyahu.

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