Coalition passes 1st judicial overhaul law, limiting review of government decisions

Despite 29 weeks of unprecedented protests, all 64 coalition members back ‘reasonableness’ bill in final vote after 30 hours of plenum discussion; entire opposition walks out

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

Coalition lawmakers crowd around Justice Minister Yariv Levin to take a celebratory selfie in the Knesset plenum, as they pass the first of the coalition's judicial overhaul laws, the so-called "reasonableness law", on July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Coalition lawmakers crowd around Justice Minister Yariv Levin to take a celebratory selfie in the Knesset plenum, as they pass the first of the coalition's judicial overhaul laws, the so-called "reasonableness law", on July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After 29 weeks of protests and mass public opposition that have roiled the country and divided its citizens, the Knesset gave its final approval Monday to a law that prevents the courts from reviewing the “reasonableness” of government and ministerial decisions, the first major bill of the government’s judicial overhaul to pass into law.

The bill passed its third and final reading with 64 votes in favor and 0 against, as the entire 56-member opposition boycotted the vote in protest.

The vote concluded 30 hours of continuous plenum debate, which began on Sunday morning. During that period, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets, both for and against curbing judicial checks on political power, and US President Joe Biden sent his fifth message in a little over a week calling on the government to not rush constitutional changes.

Within the Knesset, last-minute attempts to amend the bill or to come to a broader agreement with the opposition failed, following two rejected compromise proposals floated by a union leader and President Isaac Herzog on Sunday.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was seen arguing with Justice Minister Yariv Levin, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat between them, as the vote proceeded, attempting in vain to engineer a last-minute compromise. “Give me something,” he could be seen imploring Levin.

Immediately following the vote, Levin celebrated the law as “the first step in a historic process to correct the judicial system.” Coalition leaders have publicly committed to continue the process, with the next step being a bill to remake the panel that selects new judges, expected in the Knesset’s winter session.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) speaks on his phone in the Knesset as Justice Minister Yariv Levin (right) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant talk across him, during the vote on the “reasonableness” law in the Knesset, July 24, 2023. (Channel 12 screenshot)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid promised to quickly petition the High Court of Justice against the freshly passed law, as did the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

“This is a complete breaking of the rules of the game,” Lapid said, speaking minutes after the law passed. “The government and coalition can choose the direction the state goes in, but it can’t decide the character of the state.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid addresses the Knesset plenum ahead of the second reading on the “reasonableness” bill, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The plenum session was tense and chaotic ahead of the decisive vote, with outbursts punctuating Lapid’s address, in which he asserted that Israel is heading for destruction, and Levin’s, in which he dismissed the court’s reasonableness test as wholly dependent on a subjective “worldview.”

Presenting the government’s position on the bill ahead of the back-to-back second and third readings, Levin argued that “reasonableness” is a nebulous legal concept that bleeds into personal opinion.

“Reasonableness is a worldview. It’s not contract law, it’s not evidence law, it’s not a legal matter,” the justice minister said of the judicial test, used as one of the chief oversight tools for appointments and the actions of governments during election periods and in general.

“You [judges] want to decide what’s reasonable and what’s not, instead of the people chosen by the nation? That’s reasonable?” Levin rhetorically asked. “I want to say more than that — who even said that what is reasonable in the eyes of the judges is even the logical thing to do? Who decided that their personal positions are better than those of the ministers?”

Justice Minister Yariv Levin addresses the Knesset plenum ahead of the final readings of the “reasonableness” bill, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, the law prohibits courts from exercising any scrutiny over the “reasonableness” of cabinet and minister decisions, including appointments and the choice to not exercise vested authorities.

Supporters say that the law is a necessary corrective against abuse of judicial power, while critics say reasonableness is an important — and in some contexts, main — check against inappropriate use of public power.

Now passed, the coalition has more legal cover if it chooses to pursue three political goals its members have supported that would have otherwise been stymied by the reasonableness test: firing the attorney general or other guardians of the rule of law; not convening the Judicial Selection Committee until its composition has been changed; and returning court-disqualified Shas party head Aryeh Deri to the cabinet. However, the courts have other tools to review and potentially nullify those moves.

Lapid told the plenum before the vote that several coalition members are against the “reasonableness” bill, and urged them to stop the legislation as the final plenum votes were set to be held.

“Over the past few weeks, I have had hundreds of hours of conversations with people from within the coalition. Don’t worry, I won’t name names, but you know who you are and you know the truth. You know something terrible is happening here,” Lapid said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin vote on the “reasonableness” law in the Knesset, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Unity party head Benny Gantz echoed Lapid, and similarly claimed to the Knesset plenum that “there’s a majority in this auditorium, and I know this for a fact, that doesn’t want this result.”

Lapid denounced the legislation as a “hostile takeover of the Israeli majority by an extremist minority, and also a hostile takeover of [the Likud] party.”

“You know that what’s happening here is a disaster that can be prevented. A tragedy that we must stop,” he said.

“You can stop it. It may not be what you planned for yourself. It may not be what you came to politics for, but if you don’t stop it now, you’ll wake up at night for the next thirty years and ask yourself why you didn’t do it when you knew it was the right thing to do,” Lapid added.

Shortly before the vote, Lapid announced via a television interview that negotiations were over, saying that the coalition wants “to tear apart the state, tear apart democracy, tear apart the security of Israel, the unity of the people of Israel, and our international relations.”

Therefore, he concluded, “there is no way to continue to work with them — because this is the most irresponsible government there has ever been here.”

Anti-overhaul activists block a road during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, near the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 24, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Gantz argued that the law, when passed, would harm Israel’s democratic foundations, economy, and security.

“I’m very bothered by the security situation and what we broadcast to our enemies,” the former defense minister and military chief said.

On Sunday, Gantz received a special briefing from IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi on military readiness, given the large number of reservists who say they will opt out of voluntary duty to protest the judicial overhaul.

Protests were expected to escalate across Jerusalem and the country after Monday’s vote, and overhaul supporters organized a Monday evening rally outside the Knesset.

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