The ruling Likud party headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted during a Knesset faction meeting on Monday to approve a new proposal aimed at asserting coalition control over the Judicial Selection Committee that appoints judges, as part of the coalition’s persistent push to radically overhaul the judiciary and dramatically restrict the powers of the High Court of Justice.
The vote came less than a day after coalition members agreed on a new outline to alter the way judges are selected, based on a proposal presented by MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and a member of the far-right Religious Zionism party. They vowed to pass the bill into law before the Knesset breaks for the Passover recess early next month while delaying a host of other proposed bills to allow for negotiations with the opposition.
However, opposition leaders rejected the possibility of any such talks if the judicial selection law passes, calling it the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy.
Likud voted 34-4 to back the bill, which the party said will bring “back balance to the Judicial Selection Committee” and end “the undemocratic state in which judges appointed themselves.” In fact, representatives of the coalition and of the judiciary both have veto power over appointments to the High Court in the current selection committee.
The updated proposal will be brought before Rothman’s committee on Tuesday to be readied for its second and third (final) readings in the plenum.
The amended proposal would give a governing coalition full control over the first two appointments to the Supreme Court which open up during its tenure but require the support of one opposition member for a third appointment, and the support of both an opposition member and a judicial representative for a fourth. The proposal would also change the Supreme Court presidency appointment process, to allow the coalition to appoint the chief justice, further boosting its control over the appointment of justices to the High Court and potentially giving it full control over appointments to lower courts.
The changes, presented as a “softening” amid intense public opposition and criticism, are ostensibly meant to address widespread concerns that the bill as initially formulated — and passed in a first Knesset reading — would have given the coalition carte blanche to pack the courts with amenable ideologues.
But opposition parties and national protest organizers swiftly rejected the proposal, saying it is an attempt to mislead the public into thinking the judicial overhaul plan has been moderated, while ensuring the politicization of the court and causing grievous harm to Israel’s democratic system.
And the deputy attorney general warned that the revised proposal failed to address the concern that the coalition’s legislation will “politicize the justice system and severely harm its independence and public trust in it.”
Some critics noted that in this updated format, the coalition will soon have in place enough members of the court to effectively neuter judicial review — once the ruling bloc enacts legislation requiring a near-unanimous court ruling to overturn Knesset laws, as it plans to do.
The Likud party asserted Monday that “this system whereby public representatives elect judges is accepted in almost all democracies in the world. The claim that ending the system through which judges appoint themselves is the end of democracy is baseless.”
Even as Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who has spearheaded the dramatic judicial overhaul, demanded “unanimous” support at the Likud faction meeting, MKs Danny Danon, David Amsalem, Moshe Saada and Moshe Pasal voted against the new outline. Each of them argued that the new proposal didn’t go far enough.
Danon said he supported the “reform” and was also in favor of dialogue with the opposition on a compromise. “But compromise does not mean capitulation,” he tweeted Monday. “If this outline would have led to wide agreements, it would have been wise to consider some concessions. Right now, we are left with [the option of] spectacular capitulation and with no agreements,” he wrote.
“There is no point in an outline that is not agreed upon by either side,” he told Channel 12.
In his tweets, Danon also criticized the coalition’s conduct in recent weeks, jabbing at coalition partners who draw up outlines “in the dead of night,” a likely reference to Rothman’s changes to the judicial appointments bill late Sunday.
But according to Channel 12, Danon also said the number of non-coalition appointees on the committee should be increased.
Likud members were barred from bringing their cell phones and other communication devices into the meeting, where a stormy debate ensued and where even some who voted to approve the proposal voiced intense criticism, Channel 12 reported.
MK David Bitan, who has repeatedly advocated to freeze the judicial overhaul to allow for talks, said he would vote in favor of the outline, but added, according to Channel 12, that “this is the last time we are not consulted; we have become the administrators of Rothman and [Religious Zionism leader Bezalel] Smotrich.”
Avi Dichter, a former director of the Shin Bet, reportedly told Netanyahu that he opposed giving the coalition control over all three branches of government, though the agriculture minister still wound up voting in favor of the new outline.
A coalition that elects “the head of an executive, legislative and judicial authority is distorted,” Channel 12 quoted Dichter saying.
Netanyahu responded, “This is the essence of democracy.”
“Not like that,” Dichter said, reportedly suggesting the judicial overhaul push be delayed until after Israel’s upcoming 75th Independence Day. “This is an hour of unity. Holidays are ahead.”