ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Knesset to see decisive week for Supreme Court, as cracks appear in coalition

Core judicial overhaul plan to put coalition in control of appointing judges about to become law, amid mini-rebellion in Likud over pushing legislative pace despite societal rifts

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset session on March 20, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset session on March 20, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

With only days until the Knesset breaks for its April recess, the coalition is sprinting to close core elements of its judicial overhaul amid a mini-internal rebellion, in what is poised to be the most dramatic and decisive week of the government’s three-month-old term.

Despite 12 straight weeks of mass protest against the coalition’s drive to reshape the balance between judicial and political power, the controversial bill aiming to deliver key Supreme Court appointments into its direct control is expected to come for its final floor votes this week.

Yet dissent within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is threatening the government’s certainty, and potentially its makeup as well.

Two additional politically demanded bills are also set to become law this week. One would help return senior Netanyahu ally Shas leader Aryeh Deri to the cabinet, after the top court nixed his ministerial posts as “unreasonable in the extreme” due to his most recent criminal conviction. A second bill, demanded by the Haredi parties, will let hospital administrators decide whether and how to block leavened food from entering their facilities during the upcoming Passover holiday.

A third bill planned for an interim floor vote — tied to the High Court of Justice’s ongoing demand for Netanyahu to return $270,000 given to help him cover his legal fees — would enable politicians, officeholders, and their families to receive donations for medical and legal expenses. The attorney general has decried the bill as opening the door for corruption.

And, in addition, the government is expected to bring a two-year, nearly one trillion shekel state budget for its first reading in the Knesset this week. With the upcoming April recess, the cabinet is on a tight deadline to clear three votes before May 29 or risk automatically triggering snap elections.

Overshadowing all of this is the effort to revamp judicial selection, which, alongside creating a mechanism for the Knesset to override judicial review, is one of the two main pillars of the coalition’s sweeping plan to overhaul the judiciary, as announced so far.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on March 25, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

An amendment to the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Judiciary, the bill would redraw the Judicial Selection Committee such that the coalition has an automatic majority for the first two Supreme Court justice appointments in any Knesset term. Combined with the coalition’s intention to select the next top court president — who will also sit on the panel — the coalition will have influence over enough members of the committee to control any court appointment.

Currently, the Judicial Selection Committee’s nine-member panels appoints Supreme Court justices through a seven-vote majority and lower court judges through a simple majority of five. Three coalition politicians, one opposition MK, three Supreme Court justices, and two Israel Bar Association members sit on the panel, meaning that compromise between political and professional representatives is required to tap a Supreme Court justice.

Yoav Gallant, left, points as Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Yariv Levin look away during a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition’s proposal would shake up both the composition and the voting thresholds. The bill expands total panel members to 11 and the coalition’s representation on it to six members. The opposition gets to choose two MKs to sit on the panel, while the Israel Bar Association’s representation is scuttled entirely. Three justices — always including the Supreme Court president, but rotating the other two spots depending upon which court the appointments are being considered for — fill out the panel.

Structurally, the coalition will have the opportunity to push through two Supreme Court appointments each Knesset term with only six out of 11 votes. All other appointments, to the Supreme Court and lower courts alike, require seven votes.

Usually, such a change would be sponsored by the Justice Ministry as a government bill, but Justice Minister Yariv Levin was stymied by foot-dragging from the attorney general. The bill is instead backed by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, whose chairman MK Simcha Rothman echoed Levin in saying the shakeup will create a more diverse court that includes more right-wing appointees.

Critics attack the change as politicizing the judiciary, and they charge it will undermine judicial independence if judges can trace their seats to certain political camps.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin (R) speaks during a Shas faction meeting at the Knesset on January 23, 2023. Sitting next to him are Shas chief Aryeh Deri and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Levin and Rothman are determined to pass the bill before the Knesset’s recess, calls across the political right have increased in the past weeks to slow the pace and build consensus, pointing to an increasingly polarized society that many politicians say is tearing itself apart on the question of how to reform the judiciary.

Within Netanyahu and Levin’s Likud itself, tepid opposition boiled over into outright rebellion on Saturday night, when the party’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, bucked Netanyahu to publicly call for a pause in the legislative process. Citing the effect of the divisiveness on the military, Gallant said continuing apace would pose a “terrible danger” to security forces, who are losing reservists to anti-overhaul protests.

Party leadership moved swiftly to quash the rebellion, briefing Hebrew media that Gallant was in danger of losing his job and seeing former Shin Bet chief and current agriculture minister, Avi Dichter, installed in his stead.

Netanyahu ally Shlomo Karhi underlined this threat in a Sunday interview to Army Radio.

“If he doesn’t vote with coalition discipline,” the communications minister said of Gallant, “I don’t think he can continue being a minister in this government.”

Karhi also said Gallant should fear for his “future in the Likud party.”

But senior lawmaker Yuli Edelstein backed Gallant, after earning a wrist slap from Likud two weeks ago for skipping votes in protest over how party leadership has steamrolled the legislation over its lawmakers.

Likud MK David Bitan has said that at least five of the party’s 32 lawmakers support pausing the legislation to meet the opposition’s condition for engaging in dialogue. No outside attempts to broker agreements between political camps have borne fruit, including a high-profile collapse of the president’s alternative reform framework.

MK Yuli Edelstein attends a Likud party meeting at the Knesset on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In private conversations, many Likud lawmakers say they substantively back the reform package, in part or entirety, but are deeply uncomfortable with the national division its rollout is causing.

Whether this will translate to withheld votes on the Knesset floor is unclear. While the 64-member strong coalition can absorb seven abstentions without risking its ability to pass the law, party members say that Netanyahu wants a clear 61-MK majority in the 120-lawmaker house to back each reading, as part of an expected defense against future High Court of Justice petitions challenging the law.

Levin is said to want to soldier on with the legislation regardless.

Coalition heads are scheduled to meet later Sunday afternoon to discuss their next steps, in light of Gallant’s dramatic plea.

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