Knesset holds floor debate on curbing courts, handing judge selection to politicians

Initial volley of judicial reform legislation expected to pass first of 3 plenum votes, as tens of thousands of protesters converge upon Knesset to voice opposition

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

Opposition MKs drape themselves in Israelis flags during a Knesset debate on the coalition's first judicial reform bill, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition MKs drape themselves in Israelis flags during a Knesset debate on the coalition's first judicial reform bill, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset on Monday evening opened a floor debate on the coalition’s first judicial reform bills, in the face of bitter opposition criticism and after tens of thousands of anti-reform protesters gathered outside the parliament’s Jerusalem gates.

The two bills were expected to advance past the first of three readings later in the evening.

Before the vote, a number of Yesh Atid MKs staged a protest in the plenum, wrapping themselves in Israeli flags as the debate started. They were escorted out of the hall.

In addition to the lawmakers, a number of observers in the viewer’s gallery walked up to its glass dividers and banged loudly until they were forcibly removed.

“I ask myself if you care,” said Yesh Atid party chief and opposition leader Yair Lapid to coalition MKs, charging that they are “tearing apart” Israeli society in pushing the contentious legislation.

Sponsored by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the bills propose to transform the selection process for judges, effectively putting judicial appointments under full governmental control. They also would block the Supreme Court from exercising oversight over Basic Laws. This block would include court scrutiny over one of the bills itself, which is an amendment to the Basic Law: The Judiciary, in the event that it is finalized.

Labor MK Naama Lazimi reacts to the floor debate during a Knesset discussion on the coalition’s first judicial reform bill, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although they are only the first two of several planned bills that make up the government’s sweeping judicial reform, Monday’s votes are a potential turning point in political discourse over the government’s shakeup plan.

Its coalition backers, primarily Justice Minister Yariv Levin and the chair of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Simcha Rothman, have said they would engage in “dialogue” with the opposition once the bills have cleared their first reading in the plenum. Meanwhile, opposition leaders have warned that carrying out the vote could be a death knell to any potential negotiations.

Rothman told the plenum that, after the vote, he would be happy to engage in dialogue mediated by President Isaac Herzog. Last week, Herzog called for the coalition to halt the legislation’s progress to enable discussion, and opposition leaders continue to say they will not engage with the coalition unless it jams the legislative brakes. The coalition has yet to pause its efforts.

Should the sides come to the discussion table, the coalition’s declared timeline may put severe time pressure on any negotiation effort. Levin confirmed during Monday’s debate that he hopes to wrap up the “first phase by the end of the [Knesset] seating” in under six weeks, “and then the second phase” afterward. Beyond the current bills and the multi-point plan Levin previously described as phase one, the coalition has yet to hint at what additional judicial reforms are planned.

Expected to sail through its first reading, Monday’s bill redistributes power on the Judicial Selection Committee, ending the current balance of power that requires agreement between political and professional representatives and instead creating a majority for coalition and government politicians to push through all appointments.

Removing two representatives from the Israel Bar Association, the bill divides the panel’s nine seats equally between the judicial, legislative, and executive branches, but with the government keeping a thumb on each point.

Protesters are removed from a Knesset debate on the coalition’s first judicial reform bill, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Supreme Court president will represent the judiciary, alongside two retired judges, in place of two current Supreme Court justices. The justice minister will choose the judges on the panel, but will obtain the Supreme Court president’s approval for his picks.

The justice minister will continue to chair the panel, and be joined by two ministers of the Knesset’s choosing. The panel will also have three lawmakers: the head of the Constitution Committee, a second MK from the coalition, and one from the opposition.

Although it has long been customary to include an opposition member among the selection panel’s ranks, this will be the first time it is required by law. The second coalition lawmaker will be chosen by the Knesset speaker, while the lone opposition lawmaker will be chosen by the opposition parties.

Rather than requiring the current seven out of the committee’s nine representatives to appoint a judge, the new bill reduces the bar to only five, guaranteeing government control.

Earlier on Monday, Rothman’s committee continued to press ahead with the coalition’s next judicial reform bill, which would create preemptive immunity for certain laws, blocking the Supreme Court from reviewing them.

MK Simcha Rothman speaks during a Knesset debate on the coalition’s first judicial reform bill, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Called a “notwithstanding clause,” the private member’s bill submitted by Rothman would create a mechanism for lawmakers to insert immunity from review into specific bills. Although sometimes confused with an override clause, which would enable the Knesset to reinstate laws struck down by the court, a notwithstanding clause blocks the court from striking them down in the first place.

Constitution, Law and Justice Committee member Yulia Malinovsky expressed doubt that any dialogue would yield substantive changes to the legislation.

“Preparing the legislation for the first reading was like putting a loaded gun on the table. Passing it on the first reading is like putting a gun to the head,” the Yisrael Beytenu opposition MK told The Times of Israel, outside of the plenum.

Her party leader, Avigdor Liberman, later told the floor that he does not trust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to engage in good faith dialogue over the reforms.

Throughout the months-long discussion over judicial reform leading to Monday night’s vote, coalition lawmakers have reminded a number of right-wing opposition MKs that they in the past supported pieces of the government’s current platform. In particular, former justice minister and National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar had recently proposed an override clause (Sa’ar has said he supported a far more limited reform).

Former Yisrael Beytenu minister Oded Forer said this comparison is misleading, because individual reforms on their own “may be okay,” but “the problem is when you put them all together,” creating a layered system of political supremacy over the judiciary.

Likud MK and prospective future minister in the Justice Ministry David Amsalem argued for a different interpretation over the debate, saying the current fight over judicial reform is more about intra-Jewish ethnic divisions than substance.

Speaking on the Knesset floor, Amsalem said “it is not about this law or another. It’s that for 75 years” Mizrahi Jews have had less power than Ashkenazi Jews. “That’s the debate,” he said.

After passing their first reading, the bills presented to the plenum on Monday are slated to return to the Knesset committee, which will prepare them for the second and third readings, often conducted back-to-back. Those readings could in theory take place within days, but it is thought more likely that the process will take weeks.

A broad and vocal chorus of criticism stretching from the judiciary through civil society and to the business community has warned that the overhaul moves will essentially neuter Israel’s democratic system of checks and balances. Meanwhile, foreign allies have expressed worries that the moves could leave minority rights unprotected, and the business community has warned that the turmoil could sour the investment environment in Israel, heaping more pressure on the government to enter talks and water down the plans.

Netanyahu said Monday that the votes would go ahead as planned in the plenum, but that he would encourage dialogue “tomorrow.”

Despite calls from opposition leaders to stop the reform, their filibuster tools are limited. According to the Knesset’s rules, each of the opposition’s 56 MKs will be limited to a three-minute floor speech, limiting their filibuster to under three hours. Several coalition lawmakers joined them on the Knesset podium, stretching the actual debate out to four hours.

Although fewer than during the afternoon peak, protests continued at the Knesset’s gates against the judicial changes as the plenum session opened.

Most Popular
read more: