ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Bar Association won't finalize its panel picks until July 31

Knesset chooses far-right lawmaker to sit on judge-appointing panel

MK Yitzhak Kroizer joins opposition MK on 9-member committee, but justice minister has hinted he won’t convene it; Lapid: If panel doesn’t meet soon, we’ll petition High Court

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

Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kroizer, during a Knesset vote that appointed him to the Judicial Selection Committee, July 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kroizer, during a Knesset vote that appointed him to the Judicial Selection Committee, July 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A far-right lawmaker was selected on Wednesday to sit on the Judicial Selection Committee, joining an opposition MK and becoming the second Knesset representative on a panel that is key to the coalition’s plan to shackle the judiciary.

Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kroizer was selected in the closed-door vote to sit alongside lawmaker Karine Elharrar from the opposition’s Yesh Atid party, garnering cross-Knesset support with 86 votes out of 120. Elharrar was chosen in June, during the Knesset’s first attempt to staff the panel. Coalition infighting sabotaged the vote, leading to a failure to select a coalition representative.

The coalition and the opposition traditionally have one representative MK apiece on the nine-person committee. At the time, opposition leaders were furious over the failure to fully staff the committee and announced their withdrawal from negotiations toward consensual judicial reform.

Opposition parties on Wednesday renewed their demands for Justice Minister Yariv Levin to quickly staff the panel and convene it, and start working toward filling the large number of judicial vacancies. The committee has not met to appoint new judges in over a year.

Levin has indicated he may refuse to do so until he can pass legislation to change the composition of the committee in a way that will give the government greater power over appointments, which is a central goal of the planned judicial overhaul.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid sent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Levin a letter on Wednesday, threatening to petition the High Court of Justice to force Levin to convene the panel if he does not do so within 14 days.

Ahead of the vote, the opposition’s National Unity released a statement calling “upon the government to convene the committee as soon as possible, and to fill the hole of nearly 100 judges missing in the system.” He noted that the shortfall was extremely detrimental to the tens of thousands of Israelis undergoing legal proceedings.

Shortly after the vote, National Unity head Benny Gantz called on moderate coalition members to push for a return to judicial reform negotiations, asking them “to show responsibility and leadership, to make their voices heard, and to do the right thing – to put the interests of the country before the party. Your silence will not absolve you from responsibility.”

Levin has called the panel’s current makeup — which splits power between political and professional representatives — “invalid” for a democracy. Retooling the committee to put it under political control is core to Levin’s plan to overhaul the judiciary, and Netanyahu has said that the coalition will submit a bill to remake the committee in the Knesset’s winter session, opening in October.

Lawmakers only hold two seats on the nine-member panel, which also consists of the justice minister and one additional cabinet member, three Supreme Court judges and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) speaks with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) at the Knesset on July 10, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Opposition parties and civil society watchdogs are expected to petition the High Court of Justice to force Levin to finish staffing and convene the committee.

The government must still tap another minister to join Levin on the panel, picking from among the cabinet’s six women, in line with the law.

The Israel Bar Association’s National Council will only convene on July 31 to tap their representatives. It is unclear how this would affect Lapid’s 14-day deadline, and representatives for the opposition did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Netanyahu’s coalition has approved the first reading of a separate bill to eliminate much of the Bar Association’s power, as well as its two seats on the Judicial Selection Committee. Bill sponsor Likud MK Hanoch Milwidsky has said that the bill’s sections relating to the judge-picking panel would be removed during committee discussions, but they currently remain.

Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid (left) with MK Karine Elharrar during a joint press conference in the Knesset, on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Supreme Court chooses its panel representatives by seniority, and will be continuing with its current committee members, said a spokesperson for the top court.

Lapid’s latest letter, sent to Netanyahu and Levin by a law firm retained by Yesh Atid, alleged that Levin has “no discretion” to decide whether to convene the Judicial Selection Committee, and must do so in line with Israel’s Courts Law.

The party said that “the decision not to elect a minister to serve on the committee, much like the decision not to convene the committee, stems from personal and political considerations that the justice minister is not authorized to entertain.”

Upon being elected to represent the Knesset on the Judicial Selection Committee, Kroizer promised to “act to advance candidates whose worldview is Zionist and Jewish, and loyal to the State of Israel, its symbols and its institutions.”

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