Lapid: Protests 'managed to delay democracy-trampling laws'

In possible shift, coalition pulls some legal overhaul bills from Knesset agenda

Planned plenum votes on override clause, reinstating Deri, pushed off amid Herzog mediation efforts; Levin, Rothman say delayed bills were privately filed, no delay in legislation

A plenum session on forming the government in the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A plenum session on forming the government in the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a possible shift in tact amid intense efforts to launch negotiations between the coalition and the opposition on the government’s deeply controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary, the coalition on Wednesday abruptly called off planned Knesset plenum votes on some key pieces of legislation.

The bills now pushed off from Wednesday to a later date include one aimed at preventing the High Court of Justice from barring Shas party chief Aryeh Deri’s return as a minister, and another proposing an override clause that would enable the parliament to re-legislate laws struck down by the top court.

On Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog met with Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, who has steamrolled the early parts of the judicial overhaul proposal through the panel. The president also met separately with opposition chief Yair Lapid and the leader of the National Unity party, Benny Gantz. The meetings all took place at the president’s official residence in Jerusalem, and addressed “the president’s plan as presented in his address to the nation,” according to Herzog’s office.

Coalition whip Ofir Katz announced Wednesday afternoon that following Herzog’s appeal earlier in the week for a halt to the legislative process to allow for talks on a compromise, he had decided — after consulting with the bill’s second author, MK Moshe Arbel — to postpone the vote on the proposed Deri law until next week, adding that this “will not affect the advance of judicial reform.”

Simultaneously, Rothman’s office said in a statement that Rothman had removed his override clause bill from Wednesday’s plenum agenda and asked the Knesset’s legal adviser for a legal opinion, following questions raised by the opposition about the legality of expediting a private bill while a similar bill proposed by Rothman’s committee was being debated by that committee.

But Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Rothman said in a joint statement that the votes that were postponed relate to privately submitted bills withdrawn at their authors’ decision, which  aren’t part of the package discussed in the committee.

“The legislation of the judicial reform is continuing without pause,” they said, adding that the committee would continue its work on Sunday as planned and that the first phase of the overhaul, approved for a Knesset vote earlier this week by the panel, would come up for its first plenum vote this coming Monday, as planned.

From L-R President Isaac Herzog, MK Simcha Rothman, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, National Unity leader Benny Gantz (Flash 90)

Lapid nevertheless hailed the development, tweeting that every participant in the massive demonstrations against the legal overhaul “can tell themselves today — we fought together and managed to delay the democracy-trampling laws that won’t come up today for Knesset plenum votes.”

But Labor party leader Merav Michaeli was far more skeptical, tweeting that “dialogue is only possible with a complete freezing of legislation accepted by all parts of the coalition, and preserving the red lines of an independent legal system in Israel.

“Hundreds of thousands of Israelis didn’t take to the streets to end up as a stamp of kosher certification for Levin and Rothman’s principles,” she added. “This is the time to escalate the protest, until democracy prevails.”

Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (2nd L), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzahi Braverman (R) at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 8, 2023 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

The Deri bill in question would amend the existing Basic Law: Government to insert a clause placing ministerial appointments outside the purview of the court system. On Sunday, members of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to give the bill government backing, thereby hastening its path through the Knesset.

If it ends up passing an initial vote, it will move to a Knesset committee that will prepare it for three subsequent votes before becoming law.

Deri, who was appointed as health and interior minister in the new government, was barred from holding office in a bombshell High Court ruling last month. Justices ruled that giving the Shas chief a cabinet post was “unreasonable in the extreme,” due to his past criminal convictions — including one last year for tax offenses — and because he had falsely convinced a judge last year that he was permanently leaving political life during talks on his plea bargain.

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Shas faction meeting in Knesset, January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reluctantly fired Deri from his hardline government shortly after the High Court ruling, but he and other members of the coalition immediately vowed to pass legislation that would allow him to return to office.

Legal experts have speculated that such legislation could end up being struck down by the High Court if challenged.

A key element of the government’s efforts to remake the judicial system is allowing the Knesset to override High Court rulings, as well as to pass legislation that is immune from judicial review.

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