Opposition leaders denounced the government on Tuesday after the hard-right coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu passed, in the first of its three readings, a milestone bill in the divisive effort to overhaul Israel’s judiciary.
Paired in a back-to-back vote with a related technical bill, the legislation aims to amend the Basic Law: The Judiciary to cement government control over judicial appointments and revoke the High Court’s ability to review Basic Laws. The legislation will head back to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for preparation for its second and third readings to become law, which are expected by the end of March.
The government has steamrolled the legislation through the legal process despite fierce condemnation from the opposition, mass public protests, pleas for dialogue from President Isaac Herzog, and dire warnings from economists, security officials, legal experts and foreign allies.
Although it is only the first of several planned bills that make up the government’s sweeping judicial reform, Monday’s vote was a potential turning point in political discourse over the government’s plan. Its coalition backers had said they would engage in “dialogue” with the opposition once the bill cleared its first reading, but opposition leaders had warned that carrying out the first reading could be a death knell to any potential negotiations.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid blasted the coalition after the bill passed in its first reading shortly after midnight.
“Coalition members — history will judge you for tonight. For the damage to democracy, for the damage to the economy, for the damage to security, for you tearing apart the nation of Israel and that you just don’t care,” said Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party.
Before the vote, a number of Yesh Atid opposition MKs staged a protest in the plenum, wrapping themselves in Israeli flags as the debate started. They were escorted out of the hall.
After the vote, opposition National Unity party leader Benny Gantz called it “a black day for democracy.”
“Tomorrow morning we continue the struggle,” Gantz said.
Merav Michaeli, head of the center-left Labor party, said the opposition should not hold negotiations with the government and should instead turn to the mass public protests to halt the legislation. The government has refused to accede to the opposition’s demand that it pause the legislative process during negotiations. Justice Minister Yariv Levin said Monday that while he was open to dialogue and believed understandings could be reached, “nothing will deter” him from going through with his entire overhaul package and that he aims to have the laws enacted within six weeks.
“The conduct of the coalition proves without a doubt that they have no desire for dialogue. I again call on Lapid and Gantz to inform the president that despite good intentions, we will not hold any talks with this predatory group,” Michaeli said.
“Their stated goal is to trample democracy, while they set traps and snares for us in the form of ‘dialogue,'” Michaeli said. “The time has come to stop falling into their traps and join the determined struggle of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are taking to the streets week after week to stop the coup with their bodies. It’s the only way to win.”
Organizers of the protest movement said in a statement, “We’re in the darkest hour since the establishment of the country.”
“The Israeli Knesset is trying to trample the values in the Declaration of Independence. We accuse Netanyahu and the cowards around him of deliberately trying to bring about the destruction” of the country and its democracy, the protest organizers said.
The government celebrated the effort after the legislation passed by a vote of 63-47 with no abstentions. Some lawmakers, including the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party, boycotted the vote in protest.
Netanyahu applauded the vote as “a great night and a great day.”
Levin, a key architect of the overhaul, hailed the vote as a move toward “bringing back democracy” by bringing wider representation to the judiciary.
Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said the Knesset will be “much more democratic after this vote.”
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, posted a picture of his party members holding campaign posters that said “Law and justice.”
“What you vote for is what you get!” Smotrich wrote on Twitter.
מה שאתה בוחר זה מה שאתה מקבל! pic.twitter.com/W8orrsy0Zz
— בצלאל סמוטריץ' (@bezalelsm) February 20, 2023
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit, said, “The majority is happy.”
Sponsored by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the bill proposes to transform the selection process for judges, effectively putting judicial appointments under full governmental control. It also would block the High Court from exercising oversight over Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. This block is also aimed at preventing High Court scrutiny over the same Basic Law amendment bill that creates the mechanism.
Monday’s bill redistributes power on the Judicial Selection Committee, ending the current balance that requires agreement between political and professional representatives and instead creating a majority for coalition and government politicians to push through all appointments.
Removing two representatives from the Israel Bar Association, the legislation divides the panel’s nine seats equally between the judicial, legislative, and executive branches, but gives the coalition control of five votes of the nine, and requires only five votes for an appointment.
The justice minister will continue to chair the panel, and be joined by two ministers of the Knesset’s choosing. The coalition will also have two lawmakers on the panel: the head of the Constitution Committee and a second coalition MK. There will be one MK from the opposition.
The vote was preceded by more than six hours of fiery debate in which coalition MKs insisted the legislation would strengthen Israeli democracy, while the opposition warned the government was destroying its foundations.
The vote also came after tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the Knesset waving Israeli flags and chanting “de-mo-cra-cy” as they demanded the government halt its efforts to radically transform the judiciary.