Likud lawmakers criticize plan to soften legislation

‘Hostile political takeover’: Opposition leaders slam new judicial overhaul proposal

Lapid says changes to judge selection panel are ‘what they’ve planned from day 1’; Michaeli: ‘There’s no compromise here’; Sa’ar: Government ‘hasn’t learned anything’ from protests

Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Merav Michaeli and Avigdor Liberman meet in Jerusalem on March 13, 2023 to coordinate opposition strategy to judicial overhaul. (Yesh Atid)
Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Merav Michaeli and Avigdor Liberman meet in Jerusalem on March 13, 2023 to coordinate opposition strategy to judicial overhaul. (Yesh Atid)

Opposition leaders slammed the coalition on Monday after the latter announced in the early hours of the morning a new outline for its judicial overhaul plan that includes pushing through a modified version of its bill to completely alter the way judges are selected over the next two weeks, while delaying a host of other proposed bills to allow for negotiations.

Those opposed to the government’s plans firmly rejected any suggestion that the coalition’s latest proposal for radically shaking up the judiciary was a compromise deal or a softening of its original plans.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid called the new proposal “a framework for a hostile political takeover of the judicial system,” suggesting it would allow the government to appoint political associates to the bench — “which is exactly what they’ve been planning from the very first day.”

Labor party chief Merav Michaeli said that “controlling the Judicial Selection Committee is bringing destruction to democracy — we cannot buy Likud’s spin.” She added that “there is no ‘compromise’ or ‘softening’ here. This was their original goal from the beginning — trying to topple the foundation of democracy. We cannot stop the protests. We cannot allow this hostile takeover.”

In the plan introduced by coalition heads overnight following a proposal by Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, any new governing coalition would have complete control over the first two Supreme Court appointments that open up during its tenure, but would require the support of at least one opposition MK and one judge on the committee in order to make further appointments to the court.

Some critics noted that in this way, the coalition would have in place enough members of the court to effectively neuter judicial review — once the coalition enacts legislation requiring a unanimous court ruling to overturn Knesset laws, as it plans to do.

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against the government’s judicial overhaul bills in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

The nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute think tank rejected the coalition’s new initiative, calling it “a blatant attempt by the Netanyahu government to control the Judicial Selection Committee and turn the Supreme Court into another political branch of the government — the exact opposite of the principle of separation of powers.”

Leaders of the ongoing protest movement scoffed at the coalition’s announcement: “This isn’t a softening, but the government of Israel declaring war against its citizens and against Israeli democracy,” they said, vowing to move ahead with demonstrations, including a “day of paralysis” planned for Thursday.

“This new outline only proves that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu cares most about his personal interests,” said National Union MK Ze’ev Elkin, a former Likud member, to Army Radio on Monday morning. “They are willing to give up all of the ideological parts [of the planned judicial reform] so that Netanyahu can appoint a Supreme Court president that he likes.”

The announcement from coalition leaders early Monday said that the remainder of the legislation on the judicial overhaul would be put on hold until after the Knesset’s Passover recess and would come up only at the start of the summer session. But observers pointed out that other legislation is still slated to be voted on in the coming two weeks: bills that would prevent Netanyahu from being removed from office, allow him to use donations to fund his legal defense, and allow Shas chief Aryeh Deri to return to the cabinet despite being barred by the High Court.

MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Three months of protests and the government hasn’t learned anything,” tweeted National Unity party MK Gideon Sa’ar, a former justice minister, deriding the coalition for seeking to push through laws aimed at protecting Netanyahu and Deri. “Laws of corruption and destruction. The answer: intensifying the protests!”

Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar said that “the coalition presented a ‘softening,’ but in reality let the cat out of the bag. All they care about is controlling the selection of judges and their laws of corruption. We have no choice but to intensify the protests.”

Meanwhile, firebrand Likud MK Tally Gotliv criticized her own party for the changes, tweeting: “What’s new? You voted right, the right won and you got the left.” On the Kan public broadcaster, Gotliv suggested that the new outline “is not a compromise or not a softening — it’s a surrender to the left,” but said she would nevertheless vote in favor of the coalition’s plan.

Almog Cohen, a lawmaker with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, rejected any changes from the original plan: “Such a compromise that stems from weakness is known as surrender,” he said, claiming that the right wing wants a “fundamental change in the judicial system, not a white flag cloaked in compromise.”

File: Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen at the Knesset on November 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Likud’s Culture Minister Miki Zohar slammed the opposition for its reaction but also criticized the coalition’s conduct, telling Army Radio: “The opposition decided to boycott us and in the end we made a compromise with ourselves without receiving the minimal credit we deserve from the public.”

Likud MK Danny Danon tweeted: “This is not how a reform should be built.” Likud Minister May Golan also rejected any changes to the original proposal, tweeting: “I won’t back any option except for the reform we promised to the public. To all those worried: we won’t stop anything.”

Likud Knesset member Eli Dallal (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

By contrast, Likud MK Eli Dallal called to go a step further than the newest outline, “and stop everything and go sit and talk — even with those who don’t want to talk.” Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv, Dallal said that “negotiating with ourselves is not the right thing… therefore I think we need to rethink our whole path from the start.”

Former minister Yoaz Hendel, who served in the last government, said that “there is no such thing as compromise without sitting down with the other side.” Hendel said Likud’s efforts to make changes were welcome, “but they have to stop everything now and talk — no side loses in a compromise, but we will all lose if we continue to gallop into the abyss.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman (standing) in the Knesset on February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition leaders’ statement early Thursday urged the opposition to use the time before the Knesset reconvenes after Passover for “negotiations,” saying they were “extending a hand” to those who “really care about unity” for talks.

For weeks, both opposition and coalition leaders have accused each other of being unwilling to participate in talks. Under pressure and amid intense public criticism, the coalition has over the past few days been considering unilaterally how to change its radical reform package even as it prepares its current legislation for its final passage into law within two weeks.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest the sweeping overhaul. Business leaders, Nobel-winning economists, and prominent security officials have spoken out against it, some military reservists have stopped reporting for duty, and even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the US, have urged Netanyahu to slow down.

Rothman’s proposal was the coalition’s first public, unilateral attempt to respond to protesters, its own politicians, and legal experts, who have demanded changes in response to either the content of the reforms or the social polarization created by them.

Last week, coalition leaders swiftly rejected a separate judicial reform proposal from President Isaac Herzog that would deny the government two of its key policy points: seizing control over the appointment of judges and creating a mechanism for the government to easily override judicial review.

Herzog has warned that Israel faces “real civil war” over the issue, and pleaded with the government to abandon its current legislation.

Jeremy Sharon and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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