Breaking with Netanyahu, ex-US envoy Friedman pushes back against judicial overhaul

Speaking at conferences last week, Trump’s ambassador to Israel took issue with plan for override clause, countering MK leading push and warning it will harm minority rights

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman and his wife Tammy at an American Independence Day celebration in Jerusalem, July 2, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman and his wife Tammy at an American Independence Day celebration in Jerusalem, July 2, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Former US president Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel David Friedman has joined the long list of critics against the plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judiciary.

During an on-stage interview at a confab organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week, Friedman — who is one of Netanyahu’s most ardent backers in the Republican party — took particular issue with the coalition’s legislative effort to allow the Knesset to override decisions made by the Supreme Court. “That to me is offensive to my idea of how courts should work,” he said.

Friedman went even further in his criticism during a private session held at another conference organized by a pair of conservative think tanks last week.

The event featured a speech by Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the chair of the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee and one of the overhaul’s key architects. Rothman sought to convince those in the room of the legitimacy of the government’s proposals, arguing that they would make Israel’s judicial system more similar to that of the US.

At one point, Friedman raised his hand to speak and used the opportunity to rebut Rothman’s claim, according to the Axios news site which first reported on the comments Wednesday.

“You compare this to the US, but it doesn’t work like that in our system,” he told Rothman to applause from dozens in the room.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman during a committee hearing, March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Friedman said that in the US, the courts exist to protect minority rights, and an override clause would prevent Israeli courts from doing the same.

A member of the audience told Axios that Rothman looked embarrassed when Friedman finished speaking.

The former ambassador confirmed the Axios report later Wednesday but told The Times of Israel his concerns were made “respectfully” and were part of an “attempt to find common ground.”

“The tone of the conversation was not about slamming or being critical or pointing fingers, rather recognizing that this is a complicated issue,” he said.

Friedman is one of the few Republicans to weigh in on the overhaul, let alone offer criticism.

The Times of Israel reached out to each member of the Republican Congressional leadership for comment on the Israeli government’s proposals and either did not receive a response or was told that the respective office was not interested in commenting on the matter.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Axios while visiting Israel last week that he didn’t have an opinion on the overhaul that he was willing to voice. “This is something the citizens of Israel are going to have to sort out for themselves without any American influence. … It isn’t any of my business to give Israelis advice about how to sort this out.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the coalition advanced another part of the overhaul package, finishing a mark up of a bill to restrict the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down unconstitutional legislation and readying it for a first reading vote in the Knesset plenum.

Rothman, who chairs the panel, was assailed throughout the hearing by opposition MKs for rushing the debate and the procedure before the vote, and he had a number of committee members from the opposition ejected from the room as a result.

According to the bill, the High Court would only be able to strike down legislation if 12 out of 15 justices on the High Court ruled that it “clearly” violates a clause in a Basic Law that requires a specific majority of MKs to change.

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