‘Not over’: Opposition vows to keep up fight after government advances judicial bill

Lapid says ‘won’t give up’ after legislation that will curtail judges’ oversight of politicians passes 1st reading; coalition celebrates ‘a good start’ to overhaul

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

MK Yair Lapid addresses the Knesset floor, July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Yair Lapid addresses the Knesset floor, July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leaders vowed to keep up the fight against the government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary on Tuesday after the coalition advanced a bill that will curtail judges’ oversight of politicians.

The legislation approved in its first of three readings will block judicial review over the “reasonableness” of politicians’ decisions. The vote marked the first approval of a judicial overhaul bill since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended the far-reaching legislative package in late March.

“Like thieves in the night, the government passed a bill canceling reasonableness, and proving that nothing interests them except corrupt, anti-democratic laws,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said on Twitter. “The fight is not over. We will never give up on the values of the State of Israel. Tomorrow millions of Israelis will take to the streets with the Israeli flag to say: we will not give up.”

“It’s always darkest before the dawn. The struggle continues,” said National Unity party leader Benny Gantz.

“The regime coup government carried out an attack against Israeli democracy tonight. Lying to the public and trampling democracy. The protest will provide the public’s answer,” said Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli. “Israel will not be a dictatorship — democracy will win.”

Lapid’s Yesh Atid party said it was “not the end of our struggle.”

“We will never give up on Israeli democracy, and will not allow them to dismantle our nation from within,” the party said.

Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, said Tuesday’s vote was just “one step” in the government’s plan for a “takeover” of the judicial system.

The protest movement against the judicial overhaul has vowed to stage mass demonstrations around the country on Tuesday in response to the vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin as the Knesset deliberates a bill to cancel the judiciary’s review powers over the ‘reasonableness’ of government decisions, in Jerusalem on July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Government ministers and MKs celebrated the legislation’s approval, which came by a 64 to 56 vote along party lines. The bill needs to pass two more Knesset readings to become law, and the coalition aims to complete that process before the Knesset breaks for the summer at the end of the month.

“We’ve moved forward,” Justice Minister Yariv Levin, one of the key players in the government’s legislative push, said on Telegram.

“We’ve got the first reading,” said MK Simcha Rothman, who heads the committee that sponsored the bill. “See you tomorrow at the committee. Thank you to everyone who believed and supported.”

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich said, “64 supporters against 56 opponents for reining in reasonableness. Tonight democracy won.”

“We will continue in the second and third readings,” Smotrich said on Twitter.

“A good start,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said on Telegram. “Now we need to not compromise and pass the entire reform.”

There was no immediate comment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, addresses the Knesset floor, July 10, 2023, in the debate prior to the approval of the first reading of the ‘reasonableness’ bill. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lawmakers advanced the legislation after a long, stormy Knesset session that began on Monday evening and wrapped up after midnight.

Although billed as a limitation on judicial scrutiny over the “reasonableness” of politicians’ decrees, the bill completely outlaws courts from using the judicial test to invalidate, or even discuss, decisions made by the cabinet, ministers and other unspecified elected officials.

Supporters say the bill allows elected representatives, rather than unelected judges, to have the final word on policy and appointments.

Critics argue that it removes an important check on arbitrary decision-making, and that the reasonableness test ensures the independence of judicial gatekeepers, by protecting them from politically motivated dismissals.

Since compromise talks collapsed in June, the coalition has focused its legislative efforts on passing the reasonableness bill before the summer session’s close, but the legislation is only a precursor to deeper judicial changes.

A more central piece of Levin’s legislative package is a bill to remake the system for judicial appointments, by transferring them into political control. A bill to that effect passed its first reading in February, and was set to be enacted in late March.

However, Netanyahu then fired his Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, who had warned that the national divide over the legislation was harming Israel’s security interests, huge national protests erupted, and the prime minister suspended the legislation and later reinstated Gallant.

Netanyahu has said he plans to advance the judicial selection legislation in the Knesset’s winter session, which opens in October.

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