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Knesset panel approves judicial reform bill for first full reading

Chaotic scenes in the legislature come as anti-judicial reform protesters hold demonstrations across the country.

Knesset member Simcha Rothman, chair of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, leads a meeting of the panel on judicial reform on Feb. 13, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Knesset member Simcha Rothman, chair of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, leads a meeting of the panel on judicial reform on Feb. 13, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday voted to send the first bill in the government’s judicial reform package for its first reading in the full plenum, which is likely to take place next week.

The bill has been formulated as an amendment to Basic Law: Judiciary and would give the government control over the Judicial Selection Committee with five of the panel’s nine members, and only a simple majority needed to appoint judges to Israeli courts.

Opponents of this particular change argue that it would give the coalition too much power, whereas proponents have pointed to the U.S. Senate, which approves Supreme Court justices by simple majority, often along partisan lines.

Before the committee vote, opposition lawmakers shouted down members of the coalition, with some having to be physically restrained. Many parliamentarians were ejected from the meeting.

After the bill is approved in the plenum, the legislation will return to the committee for preparation before its second and third (final) readings and passage into law.

Opposition lawmakers shout at members of the coalition during a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Feb. 13, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Opposition legislators shout coalition lawmakers during a meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Feb. 13, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Prior to the vote, the chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Simcha Rothman, endorsed President Isaac Herzog’s call from the previous night to hold negotiations with the political opposition and various parties over the proposed reforms.

“The president expressed the sentiments of many people and emphasized the importance of national unity as well as the need to reform the judiciary, to correct what he called its injustices and failings—in effect, the same goals we are seeking with our reform, to make the justice system just once again,” said Rothman.

“The differences [between the sides] certainly do not justify the apocalyptic prognostications or alarmist claims of the end of democracy that we’ve heard in recent weeks,” he continued. “There are parts of the president’s proposal which I think are correct, and others which I believe need to be properly adjusted to the problems we are experiencing, [issues] that we promised our voters we would correct, albeit through dialogue between the opposition and the coalition.”

Israeli parliamentarian Simcha Rothman, head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, endorses President Isaac Herzog’s call to hold negotiations with the political opposition over the government’s proposed judicial reforms, Feb. 13, 2023. Ohoto by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Rothman has previously called for compromise but his overtures were rejected by the opposition, which has conditioned any talks on freezing the legislative process.

National Unity Party head Benny Gantz on Monday reiterated this position while calling for the creation of a bipartisan working group to modify the proposed reforms. “This new legislation would dismantle the [current] system and in its place establish a tyranny of the majority, which is not democracy,” he said.

On Sunday night, Gantz made clear that “suspending the legislation is a first condition for any dialogue.”

After the confrontation at the Knesset, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich commended Rothman for not caving into pressure.

“Dialogue is important and we will do everything to promote it. But unfortunately, the opposition has shown again and again that there is no opening for dialogue and that it is instead interested in violence and unacceptable belligerence,” said Smotrich.

“I congratulate my colleague…Rothman for not surrendering to violence and for running the committee hearings with professionalism,” he added.

The development came as thousands of Israelis protested on Monday in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country against the judicial reform proposal.

Roads were closed in major cities, and demonstrators blocked the main entrance to Ben-Gurion Airport along the Route 1 highway.

The primary protest was held outside the Knesset in the capital.

The Movement for the Quality of Government, one of the demonstration’s organizers, vowed Sunday night to continue fighting against the reforms.

“It is forbidden to negotiate the change of the regime structure and the destruction of the rule of law, certainly not a change made by someone accused of crimes and his fellow convicted ministers,” the organization said in a statement.

Herzog, in an address to the nation Sunday night, painted a dire picture of the country’s political situation as the opposing sides battle over the planned moves.

“We are in the midst of fateful days for our nation and for our country,” the president said in a televised address. “We have for quite some time now not been in a political debate but on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.

“I feel—we all feel—that we are just before a clash, even a violent clash—a powder keg—and we are on the threshold of one man’s hand against his brother,” he added.

Herzog presented five principles as “a basis for immediate and decisive negotiations that will arrange the relations between the government branches.”

He first proposed the passage of a Basic Law: The Constitution that would establish “constitutional stability” by clarifying relations among the three branches of government and between various laws. He also called for the number of judges to be increased to decrease judicial workload, and said the courts must be made to function more efficiently so that cases won’t drag on. He also urged a change in the way judges are selected so that no branch of government has a majority say in choosing them.

In his final principle, Herzog took a position advocated by proponents of reform, arguing against the judicial rationale of “reasonability” whereby judges can overturn laws and government decisions based on whether they consider them “reasonable.”

The government’s current proposal centers on changing the way judges are selected so that the Knesset members will have majority say on the Judicial Selection Committee; passing an “override clause,” a law that would give legislators the power to reverse, or “override,” the Supreme Court when it strikes down laws; abolishing the legal justification of “reasonableness” by which the court can cancel Knesset decisions and government decisions; and empowering ministers to hire and fire their own legal advisers.

Much of the debate stems from a 1995 decision by then-Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who announced a “constitutional revolution.” Barak based his decision on two Basic Laws (basic laws are considered to have greater legal stature than regular laws) passed in the early 1990s—Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation. Barak declared they were “the supreme law of the land and constitute part of Israel’s constitution.”

Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty was approved by the Knesset in 1992, by a majority of 32 in favor, 21 against and one abstention.

Polls show that the Supreme Court, once considered sacrosanct, has seen its position in the eyes of the Israeli public slide over the last decade as its detractors have criticized it for accumulating too much power, self-selecting its members and political bias.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier on Sunday condemned calls by opponents of the reform plan to violate the law, and called on them to act responsibly.

“I would like to strongly criticize the calls to break the law, for civil rebellion, to intentionally harm the economy, and even use weapons, by those who oppose government policy,” said Netanyahu. “Red lines cannot be crossed. Red lines have been crossed in recent days by extremist elements that have one goal: to intentionally bring about anarchy.”

His government had received a clear mandate from the people of Israel in a democratic election, he continued.

“Nobody here can deny this. Neither can anyone deny the right to demonstrate. However, there cannot be calls to violence, to act violently, to call for civil rebellion, to compel people to strike who do not want to do so. This is forbidden,” he said.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid last month called the government’s proposed judicial overhaul an “extreme regime change” and vowed to continue fighting in streets across the country in “a war over our home.”

“The struggle will not stop, the protest will not stop. We are fighting for the values of the Declaration of Independence, and for the very idea of living together and being one people,” Lapid tweeted on Sunday night.

In response, Netanyahu has accused his political opponents of “planting the seeds of disaster” by encouraging a public rebellion against a democratically-elected government.

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