Ending squabble, opposition aligns behind Yesh Atid’s Elharrar for judicial panel

National Unity and Labor acquiesce to Lapid’s pick, citing centrality of committee to their united fight against government’s planned justice system overhaul

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

Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid (R) speaks with MK Karine Elharrar (C) during a Yesh Atid Knesset faction meeting, May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid (R) speaks with MK Karine Elharrar (C) during a Yesh Atid Knesset faction meeting, May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition parties quelled their latest round of infighting Wednesday, aligning behind Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar as their candidate for a June 14 vote on selecting two lawmakers to serve on Israel’s judicial appointments panel.

The opposition is still facing coalition threats to snatch both of the spots for lawmakers on the nine-member Judicial Selection Committee, breaking with tradition. But its internal disunity in the leadup to the vote further jeopardized its representation on the panel, and the vote could have been split between Elharrar and other candidates from National Unity and Labor.

With National Unity and Labor retreating Wednesday morning from the race, it is now becoming likely that the Knesset will elect Elharrar for the opposition and Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kreuzer for the coalition.

Explaining why his National Unity party would not field a candidate, MK Benny Gantz said on Wednesday that consensus was critical.

“This risk of damage to Israeli democracy can only be prevented in one way: Field one candidate. Put Israel first,” Gantz wrote in a Wednesday morning statement. He called on Yesh Atid and Labor to “reach an agreement” and wrote that “this is not the time for political wins and ego struggles.”

Labor’s Merav Michaeli quickly followed suit, saying parties must not jeopardize the possibility of the opposition having representation on the committee, as she pulled MK Efrat Rayten’s candidacy.

Labor party head Merav Michaeli (L) speaks with Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid at a Knesset press conference, February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Elharrar submitted her candidacy to the Knesset secretary on Wednesday afternoon.

Lapid quickly thanked Gantz for his “cooperation and responsibility” and added that “we will continue to fight as a united front to protect democracy and maintain judicial independence.” He similarly thanked Labor MKs Michaeli and Rayten for their “decision to work together to strengthen democracy.”

The makeup of the judicial selection panel is central to the coalition’s ongoing efforts to increase political control over the judiciary. A key bill in the overhaul plan — now frozen just before finalization — would reshape the committee and hand the government an automatic majority, giving it the power to determine most judicial appointments.

Proponents say this is needed to balance the system’s activist, liberal slant, while critics warn the move will politicize courts and cause grievous harm to Israeli democracy.

Negotiators from the coalition and opposition working towards compromise on the judicial shakeup cite the matter as one of their biggest hurdles. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has threatened to take both lawmaker spots in the June 14 election instead of giving one to the opposition as is customary, should long-meandering negotiations continue to stall, while Lapid and Gantz have said talks won’t continue if that happens.

As of Wednesday morning, four coalition names have been submitted: two from far-right Otzma Yehudit and two from Netanyahu’s Likud.

Likud MK Nissim Vaturi attends a discussion in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud promised Otzma Yehudit a seat on the panel in their December coalition deal, and Otzma Yehudit’s Yitzhak Kreuzer is expected to be the chosen representative. MK Limor Son Har Melech was fielded as an alternative to satisfy a legal requirement to put a female politician on the panel, should another female candidate not be chosen.

Likud lawmakers Tally Gotliv and Nissim Vaturi nominated themselves on Monday, without prior coordination with Likud. Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying that candidates can nominate themselves until June 7, but noted that they can remove their names before the final vote, in an apparent message to the pair.

Further complicating the matter, Likud MK Moshe Saada is also mulling joining the race before nominations close on Wednesday, according to a spokesperson for the lawmaker.

Opposition leader Lapid had announced his plan to run Elharrar in mid-May, but Gantz publicly challenged the decision last week, throwing the opposition’s strategy toward the race into a tailspin. Michaeli then announced Rayten as her tiny four-seat party’s own candidate. But she also said she would bow to a consensus pick if opposition heads met to come to a decision.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 15, 2023. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

Fellow opposition party leader Avigdor Liberman repeatedly denounced the squabbling for the panel seat and called for a consensus pick.

The nine-member Judicial Selection Committee has two seats reserved for the justice minister and another cabinet member. The two lawmaker seats are chosen by a closed-door Knesset vote, and the seats have traditionally been split by the coalition and opposition, although it is not required by law.

Usually, the coalition and opposition agree in advance on the identity of candidates, and only the two agreed-upon individuals remain on the ballot by voting time in order to guarantee the results in the anonymous contest.

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