Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition traded blame and accusations Wednesday night after an opposition lawmaker was elected to a key judicial panel, sparking a hunt for who broke ranks to support the move.
Several coalition members directed their fire at Netanyahu’s Likud party, the most moderate faction in the right-religious coalition, following the election of Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar to the Judicial Selection Committee, which nominates judges, including for the Supreme Court.
Channel 12 news quoted a Likud lawmaker who said they backed Elharrar in the secret ballot, amid widespread speculation that Netanyahu had sought to pacify the opposition, which had threatened to pull out of talks aimed at bridging wide gaps over changes to the judiciary if no representative was put on the panel. (In the event, opposition parties suspended their participation in the talks, held under the president’s aegis, saying they would return when the coalition chooses its representative on the committee and the committee is functional.)
“Netanyahu knew that [Elharrar] would be chosen and wasn’t surprised by the result,” the lawmaker, who was unnamed, was quoted telling Channel 12 news. “We saved Netanyahu from [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin.”
Had Elharrar not won enough support, the Likud MK said, protests would have erupted and ramped up beyond the fevered pitch they hit in late March, as Israelis took to the streets to protest the firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had urged a suspension of the judicial overhaul being pushed by Levin. Netanyahu retracted the firing and froze the judicial overhaul campaign to allow for the presidential talks in response to the mass unrest.
“If Karine Elharrar wasn’t chosen, there would have been [another] Gallant incident here, on steroids,” the MK said.
Elharrar was elected 58-56, meaning at least four coalition members broke ranks to vote for her. The only other name on the ballot, Likud’s Tally Gotliv, was defeated soundly after throwing politics into a tailspin by refusing to pull her maverick candidacy.
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 Gallant and fellow minister 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.
The results were an embarrassment for the prime minister, demonstrating his lack of control over his own lawmakers. The one immediate ramification was that opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz said the day’s events, which included Netanyahu trying to delay the vote for a month, showed he could not be trusted, and announced they would stay away from the overhaul talks hosted by President Isaac Herzog until the panel convenes.
Several senior Likud members have expressed opposition to the judicial overhaul in recent days, saying the effort to legislate it has hurt public support for the party and pushed other significant items off the agenda, Haaretz reported.
“More and more ministers and MKs in the coalition are signaling to Netanyahu to back down from the reforms and distance himself from Yariv Levin,” a coalition lawmaker told Haaretz.
Yesh Atid’s Merav Ben Ari confirmed on Thursday that she played a central role in lobbying coalition members to vote for Elharrar, and said at least 6 members of the coalition did so, but declined to name names. “I don’t want to go into the specifics,” she told Army Radio.
Yesh Atid MK Meir Cohen lobbied 12 potential defectors from the coalition, the Walla news site reported. National Unity MK Chili Tropper was also involved in efforts, according to the Ynet news site.
Hushed talks with coalition members continued until Wednesday morning, and by the afternoon, the National Unity party knew that between four and six coalition members would vote with the opposition, Walla said.
After the voting, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein approached National Unity head Benny Gantz and whispered to him. Gantz then approached Tropper and spoke to him, raising suspicions Edelstein may have been one of the defectors.
Gantz refused to divulge what he spoke about with the lawmakers in an interview with Channel 12 news.
“Everyone has their own assessments. I am happy there were members on the other side that behaved responsibly and put a responsible ballot inside the box. This day ended well, in the sense that there is an opposition representative on the Judicial Selection Committee,” he said, adding, “Netanyahu is having trouble delivering the goods.”
Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar of Likud said with talks frozen, the coalition was now required to push through the overhaul unilaterally.
“The opposition did not come in good faith to negotiations at the President’s Residence from the first moment, and today we received evidence of this,” he said.
Accusations flew between coalition lawmakers soon after the results were announced.
Gotliv, who managed only 15 votes for her renegade bid, took aim at Netanyahu, accusing him of orchestrating Elharrar’s win.
“The traitors in the Likud did not vote for opposition representatives on their own accord. It’s bigger than this. It’s exactly what the prime minister wanted,” Gotliv charged to the Kan public broadcaster. “The cat came out of the bag and we discovered the true face of the coalition.”
Labor MK Efrat Rayten, who took part in counting votes, said Gotliv had harbored few hopes she would get any support.
“I spoke with her before and she said, I will only have one vote, mine, I am sure that no one will vote for me,” Rayten said.
Ahead of the vote, the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party had said it would back Gotliv’s candidacy, in a move seemingly aimed at further destabilizing the coalition.
Likud MK Moshe Saada said it was clear that the “defectors” were members of his own party. Zohar called the coalition members who supported Elharrar “traitors” in an interview with Channel 12.
A senior coalition member was quoted by the network blaming “several MKs from Likud that opposed the [overhaul] legislation.”
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said it was “very troubling” for Likud members to not vote with the coalition, despite his own Otzma Yehudit party refusing to cooperate with the coalition last month to protest budget allocations.
“And it raises a big question if all the Likud members are committed to the judicial reform,” he said.
Likud MK May Golan accused her colleagues of “pulling a Bennett.” Former prime minister Naftali Bennett was accused of hustling right-leaning voters in 2021 by bringing his right-wing party into a government with a politically diverse range of parties, including factions representing leftists and Arabs.
“They took the mandate the public gave them, and defrauded and cheated them,” Golan tweeted of those who voted for Elharrar.
But others from the coalition saw the day’s chaos as more reason to power ahead with the judicial overhaul.
“It’s easy to throw off responsibility and look for guilty parties. We are the government, we are the coalition, we are responsible,” Likud MK Boaz Bismuth tweeted. The “only way to apologize to our voters is to pass the reform.”
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.
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.
In Tel Aviv, some 200 opposition backers opposed to the judicial overhaul gathered to rally against the government and celebrate Elhararr’s win.
“We see Likud has a liberal foundation that is committed to democracy,” one activist told the Ynet news site. “I came to celebrate that.”