Lapid: They're tearing Israel apart. What wrong with them?

Coalition to speed judicial overhaul bill toward final Knesset votes next week

Constitution Committee chair Simcha Rothman schedules string of hearings for controversial shakeup before it moves to plenum for last readings; opposition MK: escalate protests

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

Members of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee vote on the government's judicial overhaul legislation, March 5, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Members of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee vote on the government's judicial overhaul legislation, March 5, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The coalition will prepare core elements of its highly contentious judicial overhaul program for final Knesset readings next week, charging full steam ahead and seemingly rejecting pleas to slow the process so compromise talks can take shape.

Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman has scheduled hearings on the dramatic legislation every day from Sunday to Wednesday. If enacted, the law will give the government full control over judicial appointments and ban the High Court of Justice from reviewing Basic Laws, as a central element of the coalition’s wide-ranging move to curb the judiciary and centralize almost all power in the hands of the governing majority.

Votes to approve the legislation in committee could be scheduled whenever Rothman decides. The bills will then move to the Knesset plenum for its final two votes sometime after a 48-hour break.

Rothman announced next week’s committee sessions Tuesday, a day after President Isaac Herzog said he was in the final stages of forming a compromise proposal for judicial reform after consultations with academics and civil society organizations on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have refused to join the talks, with the opposition demanding the legislation first be frozen and the coalition rejecting any preconditions.

The legislation was approved in its first reading on February 21, generating outrage among the opposition and leading to the intensification of public protests against the far-reaching legal reforms.

Rothman’s heavily loaded schedule for hearings on the bill next week in preparation for its second and third readings indicates that he and Justice Minister Yariv Levin are set on passing the central pillars of the judicial overhaul before the end of the Knesset winter session on April 2, as they have said from the outset of the process.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky (right) and Yesh Atid MK Vladimir Beliak (left) bicker with Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee Chair MK Simcha Rothman, March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the bill, the government will directly control five out of the nine seats on the Judicial Selection Committee, which appoints judges to all courts in Israel, including the Supreme Court. A majority of five will be needed to make appointments.

The justice minister, who will be the committee chair, will also appoint two lower court judges in agreement with the Supreme Court president, giving the government some say over another two spots on the panel.

Further reforms yet to be advanced could see the Supreme Court president chosen by the committee, meaning the government could indirectly control eight of the nine committee seats.

One slot on the committee will be guaranteed for the opposition.

Critics say the move will give the government practically free reign to stuff the court with like-minded judges, politicizing the bench.

The legislation would also prevent the High Court from exercising judicial review over Basic Laws. Since the bill is itself being advanced as an amendment to Basic Law: the Judiciary, this would stop the court from potentially striking down one of the central pillars of the overall judicial overhaul program.

A separate bill which would drastically limit the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down laws that contravene Israel’s Basic Laws; significantly reduce the rights that are protected by judicial review in the first place; and allow the Knesset to pass legislation that is immune to judicial review from the outset was approved last week for a first reading in the Knesset plenum, but has yet to be brought for a vote.

Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman (L) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend a committee hearing, January 11, 2023. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

In response to media reports about the possible format of a compromise solution on Tuesday, Rothman issued a joint statement together with Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Tuesday insisting that, “There is broad consensus among the public, academia, hi-tech, and the economy, and among Knesset members, for the need for broad and comprehensive reform and for its foundational principles.”

They added that “broad agreement is within arms reach” and said they would continue to try and reach an agreement on the issue while at the same time advancing the legislative process underway.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv, an opposition member of the Constitution Committee, dismissed Rothman and Levin’s comments, saying they were determined to complete their “repressive legislation” before Passover.

“Only continuing the protest and broadening it will interfere with their plans,” he added.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said later Tuesday that ostensible coalition readiness for compromise was manifestly “fictional” since the legislation was speeding ahead. “First stop the legislation,” he urged. “Look at what Rothman did today. He put out a schedule for legislation next week. They’re continuing to legislate even as they say, ‘dialogue, dialogue’. It’s a fraud. They need to stop the legislation. The nation is being torn apart. The economy is falling apart. What is the matter with them?”

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