ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Coalition in chaos as opposition wins seat on judge-picking panel while Likud left out

MKs elect Elharrar, reject Gotliv; result embarasses PM, though coalition will likely elect own representative soon; opposition says no overhaul talks until committee formed

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves his Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves his Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a chaotic and extraordinary day at the Knesset, an opposition lawmaker was elected to Israel’s judicial appointments panel Wednesday and a coalition lawmaker was not, after an unsuccessful effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to torpedo the parliamentary vote and delay it to a later date. Several coalition members broke ranks to back the opposition candidate in the secret ballot.

The results were an embarrassment for the prime minister, demonstrating his lack of control over his own lawmakers, though with an opposition MK now confirmed, the coalition was expected to rally behind and approve a candidate of its own in the coming days.

Despite the result, opposition leaders said Wednesday evening that the day’s events showed Netanyahu could not be trusted, and announced they would not continue ongoing negotiations over judicial reforms at the President’s Residence until the complete Judicial Selection Committee is convened.

Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar was elected with 58 votes in favor and 56 against, meaning at least four coalition members broke ranks to vote for her. Likud’s Tally Gotliv — who threw politics into a tailspin on Wednesday by refusing to stand down from the vote — was overwhelmingly rejected, with only 15 votes in favor and 59 against.

The opposition ran an organized campaign to recruit Likud MKs to push Elharrar’s candidacy over the line. Although the ballots were secret, MKs David Bitan and Yuli Edelstein, as well as ministers Yoav Gallant and Gila Gamliel, are among the top names thought to have tipped the scales in Elharrar’s favor.

A second, separate election will be conducted within 30 days to choose the second lawmaker, likely Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kroizer.

Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid (left) with MK Karine Elharrar during a joint press conference in the Knesset, on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The committee and its makeup are at the center of the coalition’s plan to remove judicial checks on political power, with legislation to ensure coalition control frozen since March. The panel currently comprises nine members: Two MKs, two ministers, two representatives of the Israel Bar Association and three Supreme Court judges, including the court president. Until the identity of the political representatives is settled, the panel can not meet to review a backlog of over 80 judicial appointments and two upcoming Supreme Court vacancies.

The prime minister had by all accounts begun the day planning to arrange the election of one coalition lawmaker and one opposition lawmaker to the Judicial Selection Committee, as is traditional, in order not to endanger ongoing cross-aisle talks on negotiated judicial reforms.

Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kroizer arrives at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After failing to assert control over his coalition and facing the risk of undesired results, Netanyahu moved to try to ensure no MK was elected, a technicality that would enable a 30-day delay before a new one is held. This prompted opposition leaders to threaten to immediately blow up the negotiations if their representative was not elected Wednesday — as they claimed had been agreed.

Netanyahu made the decision after he failed to force Gotliv to rescind her candidacy for the Judicial Selection Committee, and after facing intense pushback from far-right parties who wanted two coalition MKs to take both of the panel’s available seats. The premier apparently feared that with Gotliv still on the ballot, alongside Kroizer, wayward coalition MKs could vote for her and skew the results.

Leaders of the opposition parties had said in the morning that blocking their candidate on Wednesday would lead to the end of negotiations.

Netanyahu “is crushing Israeli democracy, the economy, security and the unity of the people. He broke his commitment to the president [regarding Wednesday’s vote] and is causing the talks to end,” Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid said in a statement preceding the vote.

Lapid further accused the prime minister of having “lost control of his government” and of being “a prisoner of extremists.”

Benny Gantz’s National Unity party stated: “If the coalition thwarts today’s election for the Judicial Selection Committee, we will not sit for talks in the President’s Residence.”

Netanyahu lashed Gantz for “continuing to make threats.” Gantz, he said, had previously threatened to end the talks specifically if the coalition chose two representatives only from its own ranks. “Okay, that didn’t happen,” Netanyahu said, but Gantz, he complained, was now conjuring up new threats instead.

Netanyahu urged Yesh Atid and National Unity to “stop the threats, stop the excuses, after three months of rejecting every compromise proposal we’ve offered — sit down with us seriously, enter into real negotiations and we will finally come to an agreement.”

The broader group of coalition party leaders also issued a joint statement urging the opposition to remain in the talks, blaming the day’s chaotic events on Gotliv refusing to withdraw her candidacy and claiming they, therefore, had “no choice” but to seek to push off the appointment of the two lawmakers for a month.

Likud MK Tally Gotliv arrives at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Judicial appointments are a core tenet of the coalition’s plan to shake up Israel’s judiciary, and a core sticking point in negotiations held at the President’s Residence.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin recently called the current panel makeup “invalid” and “unworthy” of a democracy, as he seeks to assert political control over judge picks. Opposition lawmakers and a 23-week-long protest movement have said increasing political influence over judges would end judicial independence and cause grievous harm to democracy.

Ahead of the Knesset vote, Netanyahu held marathon meetings with top advisers and coalition colleagues, working to pare down Wednesday’s ballot, which at its height, had swollen to nine candidates — with eight from the coalition.

As the Knesset chooses its representatives to the Judicial Selection Committee in a closed-door vote, generally only two names remain on the ballot by voting.

Opposition parties united behind Elharrar. But with the coalition holding a slim majority, Elharrar’s selection was not assured.

Opposition party Yisrael Beytenu said that in addition to voting for Elharrar, it would support Gotliv, in what proved a failed effort to scuttle Netanyahu’s push to delay the appointment of two lawmakers to the panel.

If Gotliv were to have been selected, the choice would likely have created tension with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, which was promised a Judicial Selection Committee seat by Likud as part of its arrangement to join Netanyahu’s coalition.

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