Likud’s Bitan says ‘at least five’ lawmakers in party back freezing overhaul bills

Veteran MK says members won’t debate matter at faction meetings due to leaked recordings, says justice minister yet to discuss watering down bills with him despite promising to

David Bitan, chairman of the Knesset Economic Committee, heads a committee hearing, March 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
David Bitan, chairman of the Knesset Economic Committee, heads a committee hearing, March 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Likud MK David Bitan said on Sunday that there were “at least five” Likud lawmakers who wanted to halt the government’s controversial judicial overhaul to allow a compromise with the opposition to be reached.

The coalition commands 64 votes in the 120-member Knesset, and five votes against the bills would block them. Bitan also claimed that lawmakers in the ruling party were in complete agreement on softening and delaying part of the legislation.

“In my opinion, it’s possible to stop the reform for a simple reason — we waited long enough; nothing will happen if we wait another two months,” he said in an interview with Channel 12.

Bitan joins other senior Likud figures who have called for a pause or compromise in the legislation. Likud MK Yuli Edelstein urged Saturday evening that the bills be frozen in order to allow discussion with the opposition, and Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar also called for some form of compromise.

Coalition leaders were due to meet Sunday evening to consider softening the legislation, while the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convened Sunday morning to prepare the judicial appointments bill for its second and third plenum readings, which it must pass to become law.

Far-right Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the panel’s chair and along with Justice Minister Yariv Levin a key architect of the overhaul, said the bill would undergo changes. The revised proposal would still give the governing coalition control over the first two appointments to the Supreme Court that open up during its tenure, but require the support of at least one opposition MK and one judge on the panel in order to make further appointments to that court.

Israelis protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest the sweeping overhaul.

Bitan told Channel 12 that he believes Levin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “unfortunately don’t understand” that “if these ‘prophecies of rage’ prove to be true, Likud will end its career.”

Preventing such a move “is within our control,” he added.

Party members did not want to debate the issue inside faction meetings because of recordings that get leaked to the press, Bitan said. One recording of such a meeting, aired by media outlets on Tuesday, saw Edelstein criticizing the coalition over its relentless push to pass the overhaul.

Bitan also griped that Levin had yet to sit with Likud MKs who wanted to freeze the legislative process.

“I sat with him two weeks ago. He said to me, ‘Let me pass the first readings, don’t cause problems for me, but after that, we will discuss softening the bills and everything.’ As of now, it still hasn’t happened,” Bitan said.

In another year, “nobody will remember why this happened. Now, this is for us, we are the government, we are responsible for what is happening and therefore I am fighting for this, for the country and also for the Likud,” he said.

Bitan, once one of Netanyahu’s fiercest defenders, has sparred with his party head more recently, notably panning his handling of coalition negotiations with Likud’s far-right and Haredi partners. He currently serves as head of the Knesset Economic Committee.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with then-coalition chairman David Bitan in the Knesset plenum, with then-tourism minister Yariv Levin sitting on the left, April 5, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the Supreme Court and give it control over the appointment of judges. It says the plan is a long-overdue measure to curb what it sees as outsize influence by unelected judges.

But critics say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority. They also say it is an attempt by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, to escape justice.

Business leaders, Nobel-winning economists and prominent security officials have spoken out against it, military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty, and even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the United States, have urged Netanyahu to slow down. Repeated efforts by President Isaac Herzog to broker a compromise have yet to yield fruit.

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