Deri: Key judicial overhaul bill wouldn’t have passed — coalition would have fallen

Shas leader says government made mistakes, came to ‘nuclear war armed with a cap gun’; at the same time, he asserts that if talks fail, MKs can pass legislation ‘whenever we want’

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (C) confers with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a vote in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas leader Aryeh Deri (C) confers with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a vote in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shas leader Aryeh Deri said in comments published Monday that the government would have broken apart had it tried to push through its judicial overhaul legislation as planned last week. Still, he warned that if negotiations for a broadly agreed-upon reform fail, the government will pass its bills unilaterally.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided last Monday to pause the legislation to allow for talks, amid a crescendo of nationwide protests, just as the coalition was set to pass the first, highly controversial overhaul bill — to give the government broad control over selecting judges.

In his first public comments since Netanyahu announced the “delay,” Deri acknowledged that the coalition had made mistakes in trying to ram its changes to the justice system through parliament.

Deri spoke to Shas’s party newspaper Haderech hours after Netanyahu announced the pause last week. The full interview will be published Tuesday ahead of the Passover holiday. Excerpts were released Monday.

Deri said that behind-the-scenes talks on the overhaul had been progressing but stopped when Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant last Sunday, after Gallant warned of the consequences if the legislation was not halted. Gallant’s dismissal led to spontaneous mass protests across the country, and a day later Netanyahu announced that the legislation’s advance would be paused to allow for negotiations. (While Netanyahu announced he had fired Gallant, the minister remains in his position more than a week later, having not received official notice as required by law.)

Deri said that besides Gallant, there was further opposition in Likud to the final approval of the judicial appointments law.

“We saw in Likud one person said one thing, another said different; this person would vote in favor, the other wouldn’t,” Deri said. “Beyond those who spoke publicly, I know of others who spoke to me personally and said they could not vote in favor. I might be the only one who really knows who would have voted [in favor] and who would not have.

“I say very clearly, if we had brought the reform for a vote now, it almost certainly, with a very large probability, would not have received 61 votes, and on top of that we would have seen the breakup of the coalition,” Deri said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and MK Yuli Edelstein arrive for a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in the Knesset on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

Deri has reportedly become increasingly disillusioned with the functioning of the coalition, particularly far-right ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, and has been working behind the scenes to keep moderate voices like Gallant in the government.

Deri said the government had made mistakes in the way it handled the reform, both in trying to push it through all at once and in not adequately foreseeing the public backlash.

“I also have criticism for myself and we have some soul-searching to do. We did not act correctly, unequivocally,” Deri said. “We went into a nuclear war armed with a cap gun.

“We did not prepare proper explanations, without a strategy how to pass the reforms, how to explain to the public what exactly the reform says and how it would solve problems,” Deri said. “We made a mistake by presenting the whole package together, when everybody knows that you can’t pass it in one go as it takes a long time to legislate these things, section by section.”

“People suddenly saw this entire pipeline of the reforms and panicked,” Deri said.

Israelis protest outside the Knesset against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The judicial overhaul legislation aims to radically constrain the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, give the government control over the appointment of judges, relegate legal counsel to ministries to non-binding advice only, and more.

Critics say the plans will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. Proponents of the measures say they will rein in a judiciary that they argue has overstepped its bounds.

The attorney general has warned that the coalition’s current package of legislation would hand the government virtually unrestrained power without providing any institutional protections for individual rights.

Protesters have rallied against the plans for 13 weeks, including in a mass demonstration on Saturday even after Netanyahu announced a pause to the legislation’s progress.

Police deploy a water cannon on people occupying the Ayalon Highway to protest government plans to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Saturday, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Deri also appeared to downplay the importance of some of the bills in the reform, particularly the judicial appointments law.

The proposed legislation would give a governing coalition, starting from the current one, control of six spots on the 11-member Judicial Selection Committee. Three positions would be allocated to the Supreme Court justices, including the president of the Supreme Court, and two to opposition MKs. Seven votes would be needed to appoint Supreme Court justices, but the coalition would unilaterally choose the first two justices in every Knesset term.

Critically, the coalition also intends to change the manner in which the president of the Supreme Court is elected: moving from the seniority system used until now, whereby the justice who has served the longest on the bench is appointed president, to a vote by simple majority of the Judicial Selection Committee. This would, in effect, give the coalition broad control over the court and its agenda.

“I said to my coalition partners that it is less important to decide who the judges are, and what their identity is. Instead, we need to define what their authority is, what the rules of the game are, in a clear manner so that judges can’t just come and do what they want,” Deri said.

Deri also criticized the opposition and the mass protests that have raged for months, calling them an attempted coup.

The protesters “tried to shut down the country. They have a clear goal, which is in fact to overthrow the government, unequivocally. Except, what they do in South America or other countries to overthrow the government with tanks in the streets, they have managed to improve on it and do without tanks, but it is even more dangerous in terms of its meaning.”

Demonstrations have been largely peaceful. But as the legislation progressed, the Israeli military increasingly saw large groups of reservists in influential positions warn they may not show up for duty if democracy is harmed.

Coalition leaders have pointed to such refusal, particularly, as a dangerous and illegitimate means of protest. Anti-overhaul activists have shot back that many members of the coalition — Deri among them — actively work to exempt their constituents from military service entirely.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Deri urged the opposition leaders to take advantage of the pause for talks and warned that should they fail, the government could still push through the original proposals.

“Let’s not forget that the laws are ready for a second and third reading [in the Knesset]. We do not need to wait two more months,” he said. “Whenever we want we can convene the plenum and pass the laws.”

It was not clear how this claim squared with his earlier assertion that the coalition did not have a clear majority to do so.

However, Deri conceded, it would be better to pass the reform through broad agreement, as then the laws would be stronger and less challengeable.

Deri said he was not issuing an ultimatum but rather urging the opposition to take advantage of “our good intentions and our sense of responsibility.”

He did, however, caution the opposition that if it chose to end the dialogue, it would come up against “a united coalition, strong, unified and just” that would “act with wisdom, without mistakes to pass the changes step by step.”

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