As deadline nears, bickering over judge selection panel puts opposition seat at risk

Coalition also yet to formally announce candidate for key nine-member committee tasked with judicial nominations, but threatens to snatch both spots reserved for MKs

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on June 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on June 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Two days out from the June 7 deadline to submit candidates, opposition parties have yet to reach an agreement on a candidate to put on the Judicial Selection Committee, endangering the camp’s ability to have a say in crucial bench appointments.

Yesh Atid is pushing MK Karine Elharrar, while Labor put forward MK Efrat Rayten and National Unity has said that it is mulling its own pick. Meetings among the various opposition party heads have yet to lead to a resolution.

On June 14, lawmakers will cast secret ballots to choose the Knesset’s two representatives to the panel, which is entrusted with selecting Israel’s judges from the Supreme Court on down. The coalition and opposition usually split those two seats.

However, the coalition has threatened to advance two candidates of its own. Coupled with the lack of a consensus candidate from the opposition, the result could wind up leaving the opposition without any influence over the discussions.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said on Monday that “efforts are being made with [National Unity head Benny] Gantz to come to an agreed-upon candidate,” but declined to say whether his Yesh Atid party would run Elharrar unilaterally if the matter was not settled.

Gantz is currently in New York and is only expected to return to Israel on Wednesday, complicating the ability to reach agreements before the June 7 deadline to nominate contenders.

Lapid added a dig at tiny, four-seat Labor, which briefly tried to challenge Yesh Atid’s standing as the leader of Israel’s center-left camp in the run-up to last year’s general election. “Sometimes it’s hard to speak with the Labor party because it’s a few people who sometimes express different opinions,” he said, while also denying Labor’s claims of being sidelined in ongoing discussions within the loose opposition alliance he heads.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli attends a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Labor head Merav Michaeli, meanwhile, said that her party still believes Rayten is a viable candidate, but like Lapid, refused to say whether she would push Rayten if the coalition failed to reach an agreement.

Unwilling to capitulate to larger allies, Michaeli also said that the matter does not need to be decided by Wednesday, indicating that they could place multiple candidates on the ballot, giving themselves an extra “week to arrive at agreements” on who they will ultimately back.

Urging the opposition to unify, or else hand their one seat on the appointments panel to the coalition, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman confirmed during his Knesset faction meeting on Monday that his party will not field its own candidate.

Last week, Lapid and Gantz met to discuss the appointment, after publicly blaming each other for mismanaging the process and endangering the opposition’s seat. Michaeli separately met with Gantz, and said on Monday that she and the National Unity leader are “completely coordinated” on the matter.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks at the Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society, hosted in Jerusalem by this Israel Democracy Institute, May 31, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition to opposition disarray, the governing coalition has threatened to run to candidates of its own to take both of the panel’s lawmaker spots. While one of the panel’s spots — either a lawmaker seat or the one discretionary minister posting — was promised to Otzma Yehudit in its coalition deal with Netanyahu’s Likud, Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin have yet to decide on their final candidate — or candidates.

Sources close to the prime minister confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday that the coalition has yet to finalize its strategy, with an official message from the Likud party saying that the coalition will announce its path forward “next week,” after the nominations are due.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported that Otzma Yehudit plans to advance either MK Yitzhak Kreuzer or Limor Son Har Melech, the latter if the coalition needs to choose a woman to fulfil the requirement that at least one of the two lawmakers on the panel be female.

Likud MK Tally Gotliv submitted her own name as a candidate on Monday, as did party MK Nissim Vaturi. At least Goltiv’s move was not sanctioned by Likud, a source close to Netanyahu said. So had

While giving both MK spots on the nine-member panel to the coalition will not hand the government a supermajority to appoint judges carte blanche, it will likely damage efforts to reach a negotiated solution for reforming the judiciary, including plans that critics say would give the government total control of judicial appointments.

Whether the coalition agrees to follow convention and relinquish one seat to the opposition or not will be seen as a bellwether for whether it can be trusted to act in good faith in overhaul talks.

Reports continue to swirl that the coalition and opposition are inching toward announcing areas of agreement regarding judicial reform, in what would be the first codified sign of progress in over two months of conversations hosted by the President’s Residence. In particular, the parties are said to be converging on a set of principles governing the continuation of talks, as well as on limiting judicial review of the “reasonableness” of government decisions and permitting the government to select its own legal advisers, rather than be forced to rely upon the Attorney General’s Office.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 4, 2023 (Amit Shabi/Pool/Flash90)

Opposition sources continue to deny that they would sign onto a piecemeal agreement, instead demanding guarantees that the coalition bury its sweeping plan to sap the judiciary of its power as a condition to any agreement.

The opposition harbors wide mistrust of Netanyahu, a slick political operator who wiggled out of a rotation agreement with Gantz in 2021.

“I agree the central issue is how to arrange guarantees,” Lapid said in response to reporter questions, adding that it was not possible to trust Netanyahu’s coalition.

Coalition sources with knowledge of the talks doubt that the political alliance would be able to provide air tight guarantees, and predict that trust will also become a recurrent theme should a deal take shape.

Announcing their plans for a Friday protest outside of the President’s Residence, representatives for the national protest movement against the coalition’s judicial upheaval said they “strongly denounce” reports of the emerging agreement Monday.

They slammed Lapid and Gantz for “failing to uphold the principles and values for which we have fought tirelessly.”

“If the reports are indeed true, this so-called ‘compromise’ agreement amounts to nothing more than a surrender that compromises the very essence of Israeli democracy in exchange for empty promises from Netanyahu,” a statement from the movement read. “This is an unacceptable betrayal of the trust and aspirations of the millions who have actively voiced their concerns.”

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