Irregular extra Knesset session set for Sunday as coalition plows ahead with overhaul

Knesset speaker expected to convene MKs for vote to delay appointing representatives to judicial selection panel, which the government is seeking to bring under political control

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , right, converses with Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana during a Likud faction meeting on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , right, converses with Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana during a Likud faction meeting on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-religious coalition is likely to call a special Knesset plenum session on Sunday as part of its efforts to upend Israel’s judicial system, indicating the government was moving full steam ahead with its legislative plans amid calls for dialogue on the far-reaching proposals.

Though the plenum typically does not convene on Sundays, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana of Netanyahu’s Likud party was planning to hold the special session rather than waiting until parliament usually meets because the Jewish festival of Purim begins Monday evening, according to a Likud source.

Purim, which is celebrated with parades, fancy dress and some drunken revelry, is marked a day later in Jerusalem and some other ancient cities, meaning the festivities will not fully wrap up until Wednesday night.

During Sunday’s planned meeting, lawmakers are expected to vote on postponing a March 15 deadline for selecting Knesset representatives to the Judicial Selection Committee, which is in charge of appointing judges. It was not clear why the vote couldn’t be held another day the following week before the deadline.

The proposed restructuring of the judicial panel is a central element in the coalition’s push to shift authorities from the courts to politicians and would give the government effective control over selecting judges.

The bill, which was passed in a first reading last week, 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.

MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, left, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar, a former justice minister, denounced the planned plenum session for Sunday.

“The goal is to prevent voting on Knesset representatives for the Judicial Selection Committee and allowing the passage of the plan for taking over the courts,” Sa’ar wrote on Twitter.

As a response, he called on opponents of the overhaul to ramp up anti-government protests.

The coalition is due to work on advancing several other controversial measures next week, including a bill to shield legislation from judicial review, another key plank in the planned judicial shakeup.

Also Sunday, ministers are set to deliberate a Likud-sponsored bill that would allow public servants to more freely receive donations.

The proposal is seemingly aimed at allowing Netanyahu to keep $270,000 that the High Court of Justice has ordered him to return to the estate of his deceased cousin and former benefactor Nathan Milikowsky, on the grounds that the funds were an illicit gift.

Netanyahu was supposed to return the funds by February.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara is expected to oppose the measure, according to a Channel 13 news report Thursday.

File: Nathan Milikowsky in 2013, in San Francisco (Drew Altizer Photography)

The proposal has been strongly denounced by an anti-corruption watchdog group.

“The newly proposed law, besides being a personal proposal clearly tailored to benefit Netanyahu, opens the door for corruption,” lawyer Omer Makayes of the Movement for Pure Morals, an anti-corruption organization, said last month.

Last year, the High Court of Justice determined that money from Milikowsky received by Netanyahu and his wife Sara to fund their legal fees while he served as prime minister during his last term, was a prohibited gift to a public servant.

The justices ruled that although Milikowsky and Netanyahu were cousins, business interests were a more dominant factor in the reason for the gift, and the money went way beyond what was acceptable as a routine gift between family members.

Milikowsky died in 2021 at the age of 78.

Justices also ruled last year that a NIS 2 million ($566,000) loan Netanyahu received from real estate mogul Spencer Partrich was a forbidden gift, but could be repaid according to their agreement, with supervision from the state comptroller, since the loan had been approved by the comptroller and attorney general.

The Netanyahu coalition is also pushing a dramatic judicial restructuring that would increase government control over the judiciary. Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch, and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as the weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, and private companies.

Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism, saying that the proposals would strengthen democracy rather than hasten its end and that his government was carrying out the will of the people.

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