Opposition MK accuses coalition of 'working like a mafia'

Knesset passes preliminary reading of bill to sap Bar Association of key powers

Weeks after government opponent elected as IBA head, legislation would hand its seats on politically fraught judge-selecting panel to a new body controlled by the government

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Newly elected head of the Israel Bar Association Amit Becher, center, with members of the IBA's election committee during a press conference in Tel Aviv, June 21, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Newly elected head of the Israel Bar Association Amit Becher, center, with members of the IBA's election committee during a press conference in Tel Aviv, June 21, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Knesset on Wednesday passed in its preliminary reading a bill to strip the Israel Bar Association of most of its powers and transfer them to a new government-appointed body.

It did so in a 50-43 vote, just weeks after the country’s lawyers elected Amit Becher — who has been bitterly critical of the coalition’s judicial overhaul push — as head of the bar association, defeating the coalition’s preferred candidate to head the organization.

The bill, which is backed by the government, would remove the bar’s licensing authority, its ability to sanction lawyers for misconduct, and its representation on the committee that selects judges, effectively voiding its powers. These would instead go to a yet-to-be-created Lawyers Council, which would be led by a district court judge appointed by the justice minister.

The central part of the bill is a clause that would strip the IBA of its seats on the Judicial Selection Committee — the body that appoints the country’s judges, and is at the heart of the government’s plans to remake the judiciary.

On Saturday, Becher called the legislation “thuggish, anti-democratic and absurd,” and warned that lawyers could “shut down” the judicial system if it ends up being passed into law. The bill still faces three more plenum votes before that can happen.

Likud MK Hanoch Milwidsky, the bill’s sponsor, has said his goal is to transform the bar association from “an archaic guild” into a “voluntary” professional organization.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin addresses the Knesset floor, July 5, 2023. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Milwidsky has said that he plans in the future to remove the section of the bill touching on the IBA’s seats on the panel, once the government moves ahead with its own separate proposal to revamp the committee.

The bill’s explanatory notes argue that while the bar association is a professional union dedicated to advancing lawyers’ interests, the judging profession is aimed at serving the entire public, “and there is no point to the involvement of a professional union in the judge-selection process.”

Milwidsky denied during Wednesday’s plenum discussion that the bill was advancing as a reaction to the bar association leadership vote, even though multiple coalition members have made that link and touted the bill as a fitting response to the result.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin said Wednesday that the bar association “has unfortunately become a completely political body recently, with membership fees being used for political goals unrelated to the benefit of lawyers.”

Former justice minister Gideon Sa’ar of the opposition, who previously championed major judicial reform but staunchly opposes the current government’s overhaul legislation, told Levin: “Now the association has become political? When you were there of course it had to exist, but when your political interest has changed it now has to be eliminated?”

MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks during a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee hearing, January 29, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Does anyone believe that if the association [leadership] results were different you would come to dismantle it? You lost and you should learn to lose with grace,” Sa’ar added, accusing the coalition of “operating like a mafia.”

Several months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze legislation that would have granted the government broad control over the body that chooses Supreme Court justices and other judges. But as the government is now moving ahead with the overhaul following the collapse of talks, Netanyahu is said to be planning a fresh bill on that in the Knesset’s winter session later this year.

The bar association’s two seats on the panel have drawn ire from the coalition, with many in its hard-right base accusing the bar of pushing liberal candidates for bench positions. Under the tenure of former bar association head Efi Nave, bar representatives collaborated with then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked to tap right-wing judges.

The nine-member committee comprises two members of the bar, three of the judiciary, and three politicians, plus the justice minister.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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