Coalition to push ahead with judicial overhaul, bills to assist Netanyahu and Deri

Constitution committee will hold back-to-back hearings ahead of likely final votes next week, while bills to help PM and Shas chief with legal problems will also be advanced

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the Israel's judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the Israel's judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The coming week is shaping up to be a busy and tempestuous one in the Knesset, with the coalition set to advance core elements of its highly contentious judicial overhaul as well as a slew of other controversial laws designed to assist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas leader Aryeh Deri with their legal troubles, circumvent the High Court of Justice, or both.

Ahead of the legislative sessions, hundreds of thousands of Israelis again took to the streets Saturday evening to protest against the government’s agenda, with a number of violent attacks reported on demonstrators throughout the evening.

At the same time, several senior figures in the Likud party expressed reservations about the push to pass the judicial overhaul into law before the end of the Knesset winter session on April 2, with MK Yuli Edelstein calling to freeze the legislation to allow discussion with the opposition and Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar calling for some form of compromise.

Starting Sunday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee will hold four back-to-back hearings to prepare the bill designed to give the government full control over all judicial appointments for its second and third readings in Knesset.

The bill, which is being advanced as an amendment to Basic Law: the Judiciary, would bar the High Court from exercising judicial review over Basic Laws, to prevent it from striking down the judicial overhaul package itself.

Following the rejection by the coalition last week of President Isaac Herzog’s alternative proposal for judicial reform, Netanyahu and others said that the government would discuss different options to unilaterally moderate the current legislation.

Yesh Atid MK Merav Ben-Ari is removed from the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee during a stormy hearing over the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The extent of those changes seems likely to be mostly superficial, since Justice Minister Yariv Levin is reportedly insistent that the coalition be afforded an automatic majority on the Judicial Selection Committee, in order to reshape the High Court and curb the scope of its authority.

The schedule sent out by the constitution committee spokeswoman did not include any hearings for the other major pillar of the judicial overhaul, the law restricting judicial review and allowing for a High Court override mechanism.

Given that the following week is the last of the Knesset’s winter session, it is possible that this bill won’t be approved before the Passover recess on April 2.

Protesters gather during a rally against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Speaking Saturday night, Edelstein said the government should freeze the legislation to allow time to hold discussions with the opposition.

“Really, we could have done this a while ago for several reasons. Not only to give a chance for dialogue but also not to fuel the protests,” Edelstein said in an interview with Channel 13 news.

“If you always say, ‘we won’t stop, not even for a moment, and we will pass the reform as is,’ you are only helping recruit more and more power to the protests,” added Edelstein, who was sanctioned last week by the Likud after he broke ranks and missed two key votes over the judicial overhaul legislation.

Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Yuli Edelstein arrives for a committee hearing, March 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His party colleague Zohar opined that compromise was necessary at this stage, although said he supported the reforms in general.

“The reform is required, it is the right thing to do, but we will compromise so that it will be good for the people of Israel,” Zohar told Channel 12 news.

The protests on Saturday night were marked by several incidents of violence against anti-government protestors.

In Herzliya, a 57-year-old man was arrested for allegedly ramming his car into a protester, who was lightly hurt in the incident.

In the Tel-Aviv suburb of Givatayim, a 24-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of assault and making threats after he drove his motorcycle into a group of protesters. No one was injured in the incident.

In Or Akiva, three people were arrested for throwing eggs at anti-government protesters. According to the Ynet news site, the egg-throwers shouted “anarchists, only Bibi,” at the demonstration, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

And in one incident in Tel Aviv, several right-wing activists, some of them masked, were seen confronting protesters demonstrating against the judicial overhaul.

Other legislation set to be advanced this week is a bill to allow Netanyahu to receive donations to fund his legal expenses in his criminal trials; a bill to allow Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to ministerial office despite a High Court ruling banning him from doing so; a bill to ensure Netanyahu cannot be forced to recuse himself due to a conflict of interests he might have between his criminal trial and the government’s radical legal reforms; and a bill allowing hospitals to stop people from bringing hametz, or leavened goods, onto their premises during Passover, an arrangement previously struck down by the High Court.

The law for donations to Netanyahu’s legal expenses is expected to come for its first reading in the Knesset plenum.

The measure would enable Netanyahu to keep the $270,000 he received from his now-deceased cousin and former benefactor Nathan Milikowsky. Last year, the High Court of Justice ordered the premier to return the gift by February 2023 to Milkowsky’s estate, on the grounds that the funds for legal expenses were an illicit gift.

The so-called Deri Two law – named due to the fact that it is the second law being passed in this Knesset to allow Deri to serve as a minister – will also come for a first reading.

This law would eliminate the High Court’s oversight of ministerial appointments, allowing Netanyahu to reappoint Deri to the ministerial posts he was forced to leave by the court’s January ruling.

Health and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri seen outside his home in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023, following the High Court of Justice ruling barring him from ministerial office. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The recusal bill enshrines in law only two ways for a prime minister to be removed from office: either a prime minister informs the Knesset that they are recusing themselves, or the government recuses the prime minister in a majority vote of three-quarters of cabinet ministers, and that decision is then upheld by a majority of 90 members of the Knesset.

This would block the attorney general from ordering the prime minister to recuse himself in the event that his involvement in the government’s legal reforms was deemed to violate a conflict of interests agreement drawn up by the attorney general.

And the hametz bill would allow hospital administrators to ban the entrance of leavened food into the hospital building over Passover. In 2020, the High Court ruled that orders by the Chief Rabbinate and Health Ministry instructing hospital security guards to check visitors for hametz products and stop them from entering if they had any violated the fundamental rights of the autonomy of the individual and freedom of religion.

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