Key overhaul architect Rothman: Plan is 'not dead'

Coalition said to propose freezing key parts of judicial overhaul for a year

Report says legislation will be passed on the issues of ‘reasonableness,’ legal advisers; opposition thought unwilling to immediately agree; direct talks to restart Tuesday

President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial overhaul negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial overhaul negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

An unsourced report Monday said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition was proposing to freeze major parts of the contentious planned judicial overhaul for a year, including control of the judicial appointments panel and a potential override clause.

The Army Radio report said that while the coalition has until now been willing to freeze those planks of the plan for six months, that had been extended to a year.

According to the report, in return for freezing those key parts of the overhaul there would be reform of the use of the so-called “reasonableness” test used by the court, as well as changes to the powers of government legal advisers.

The report said the coalition has proposed a freeze on the passage of legislation that would give governing coalitions extensive control over the overwhelming majority of judicial appointments by handing the coalition an automatic majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.

The bill is on the cusp of being passed into law, and can be brought for its final votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice.

Opponents of the overhaul have drawn a line in the sand on that bill, saying it will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. Its passage is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public opposition.

In addition, the coalition would also freeze the passage of a law that would allow the Knesset to override the High Court if it strikes down legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The push for that bill came from the Haredi parties because they want to pass a law regulating military draft exemptions for their constituents. Previous such bills that have satisfied Haredi demands have been struck down by courts. The Haredi parties are also looking for a way to bypass court intervention on the issue of allowing gender segregation in public places.

The Monday report said the opposition was believed to be unwilling to accept the proposal as long as the makeup of the soon-to-be-formed Judicial Selection Committee remained undecided.

It has been customary over the years to select one coalition MK and one opposition MK to serve on the panel, though this isn’t mandatory and the coalition could elect to pick two coalition lawmakers. Earlier this month, Government Secretary Yossi Fuchs threatened to choose two coalition MKs if there was no agreement between the government and the opposition in the compromise talks.

The opposition has said it will walk away from the compromise talks if two coalition lawmakers are picked for the panel. According to an unsourced Channel 12 news report Sunday, the coalition will not choose two lawmakers for the panel and instead will nominate one, in keeping with tradition.

The two sides are expected to renew direct discussions on Tuesday. In recent days negotiations have been held with the sides sitting separately as the team from the President’s Residence hosting the talks acts as intermediary.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a key architect of the judicial overhaul, told Army Radio on Monday that the overhaul was “not dead” and implied that the coalition would go back to advancing bills in the package if no agreements are reached in the compromise talks.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Energy Minister Israel Katz said that the Likud party still believes changes need to be made to the judicial system.

“There are no major disputes as they are described at the moment,” Katz said. “The reform has not been dropped, because there is a will in Likud and in the public as a whole for changes in the judicial system.”

Unsourced Hebrew-language reports earlier this month said the two sides had already reached a tentative agreement on the issues of reasonableness and legal advisers. But opposition parties publicly denied the reports.

The right has long complained that the High Court has used the judicial test of reasonableness to reverse government resolutions and policy decisions, and the appointment of ministers. The issue came notably to the fore in the court’s decision earlier this year to bar Shas leader Aryeh Deri from ministerial office due to his prior convictions.

According to the reports, under the compromise, the court would still be able to use the reasonableness test regarding ministerial policy decisions, and over the actions of other state institutions and agencies, such as local municipal councils and state authorities.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And, the report said, the court would still be able to employ the reasonableness clause on governmental appointments — and thus the ostensible agreement would not help pave Deri’s path back to a ministerial role, after the court partly relied on that aspect to invalidate his appointment earlier this year.

The use of this judicial tool has frequently invoked the ire of the right-wing and religious parties currently seeking judicial reform.

In addition, it was reported that the government would be able to utilize independent counsel when facing legal motions against the state and ministerial decisions, even if the attorney general declines to support the state’s decision.

At present, when such a situation arises, the relevant minister or government agency head must obtain the permission of the attorney general to get independent counsel, another major bugbear for reform advocates.

The report said that the stated position on the legality of any government action by the attorney general would, however, remain binding.

The overhaul legislation has been frozen since late March, with Netanyahu saying he was giving a chance for talks with the opposition under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog to try to find a broadly accepted compromise for judicial reform. But months of talks have not produced a breakthrough, and pressure has increased within the coalition to resume the legislative push.

Netanyahu said last week that after the passage of the state budget, “of course” the overhaul was back on the government’s agenda. Later that day, he added, however: “We will of course continue with our efforts to arrive at a broad consensus agreement, to the extent possible, on the issue of judicial reform.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with the architects of the proposed judicial overhaul, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman (standing) in the Knesset on February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Additionally, Justice Minister Yariv Levin has threatened to quit his position if the judicial overhaul legislation does not end up passing.

Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.

On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people demonstrated nationwide against the judicial overhaul plan for the 21st week.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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