Lapid: The coalition is gradually destroying the country

Gantz dismisses coalition’s offer to talk once law passes on choosing judges

National Unity leader pleads with PM to ‘stop,’ prevent civil war, as opposition chiefs denounce latest plan to give coalition control over judicial appointments

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

Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting, at the Knesset, March 20, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting, at the Knesset, March 20, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Opposition chiefs on Monday denounced an amended coalition formula for asserting political control over the appointment of judges, calling it the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy.

National Unity chief Benny Gantz, hitherto the opposition’s most bullish figure on reaching a negotiated compromise about changes to be made to the judiciary, said that his party rejects the coalition’s latest proposal for selecting judges, as well as its offer to negotiate further judicial changes once that central element of the overhaul becomes law.

“What’s being offered is not a unilateral compromise. It’s a unilateral disengagement from democracy and Israel’s values,” Gantz said at the outset of his party’s weekly Knesset faction meeting.

Fellow opposition chiefs on both the right and center-left echoed his criticism, with Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman calling the coalition’s fresh proposal “a fraudulent trick” and Labor party leader Merav Michaeli saying the coalition’s claim that the new proposal marked a compromise was “spin.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, meanwhile, internally debated its own position on the proposal.

On Sunday, the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee chairman, Simcha Rothman, put forward a proposal to guarantee the coalition control over two Supreme Court appointments during each elected Knesset term. In practice, the coalition is likely to control most meaningful appointments, as it is separately angling to control the selection of future Supreme Court presidents — who also hold a seat on the appointments panel — and an average of fewer than three judges are appointed each Knesset, according to an opposition MK in Rothman’s committee on Monday.

MK Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While the six coalition members on Rothman’s retooled 11-member Judicial Selection Committee could push through their two chosen Supreme Court picks, lower court appointments would require seven votes. However, if the Supreme Court president is picked by the coalition, it would presumably be more likely to find mutually favorable candidates with the president it chooses.

Gantz renewed his call for the coalition to halt its entire legislative package and to hold negotiations on a judicial reform framework presented last week by President Isaac Herzog, which the coalition swiftly rejected. If negotiations were underway, then, said Gantz, the lawmakers could discuss “an overall formula, rather than the [coalition’s] phased plan for a revolution in the way Israel is governed.”

The centrist leader said that his party will not engage in talks during the Knesset’s upcoming April recess if the coalition approves the bill before then, as it insists it will.

“Saying that choosing judges politically will increase confidence in the judicial system is divorced from reality,” he said. “I call on every decent jurist to withdraw his candidacy for the position of Supreme Court judge if the legislation passes, and not to agree to be appointed with a political mark on his forehead and his rulings.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on March 19, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The National Unity leader also charged that politicizing the judiciary marked the first stage of the coalition’s “salami” plan to destroy Israeli democracy.

“I almost plead with Netanyahu to stop,” he said. “We’ll mark our 75th anniversary with a terrible rift,” on Israel’s Independence Day in May.

“We must stop the disaster…we have to stop the civil war,” he continued. “If you don’t try, the public will not forgive you.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid echoed that sentiment, saying, “We’ll wait and see if we still have a country for the state ceremonies” in May, because the coalition is “gradually destroying it.”

Lapid, who, like Gantz, is a frequent fixture at protests against the overhaul, dismissed the latest judicial appointment proposal as a “hostile takeover of the judicial system.”

Because Israel’s executive and legislative branches both emanate from the Knesset — out of which a parliamentary majority produces a government — and Israel does not have a constitution, the courts are the only independent and effective checks on political power. Noting this, Lapid argued that, that “if they,” the coalition, “control the appointment of judges, there would be no separation of powers.”

If the law passes, as the coalition vowed late Sunday would happen before the Knesset’s Passover recess, Lapid pledged to “go to the High Court” to fight it.

Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on March 20, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Lapid reaffirmed the opposition’s stance that it is prepared to debate judicial reform on the basis of Herzog’s alternative proposal.

Earlier Monday, Deputy Attorney General Avital Sompolinsky told Rothman’s committee that his new plan — presented as a softened version — is effectively the same as the original legislation.

Sompolinsky said that all the legal difficulties the Attorney General’s Office encountered in the initial legislation “don’t receive any significant response in the new version.”

The original proposal put forth by Justice Minister Yariv Levin gave the coalition total control over all judicial appointments without the need for support from either the opposition or the judiciary, and a version of that proposal passed a first reading last month. At the time, Sompolinsky said that such a move would “politicize the justice system and severely harm its independence and public trust in it.”

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