Opposition infighting heats up over seat on judge selection panel

Lapid tries to push a candidate from his own party, while a National Unity official accuses the opposition leader of ‘putting the cart before the horse’

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

Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid (left) and National Unity head MK Benny Gantz in the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid (left) and National Unity head MK Benny Gantz in the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset’s largest opposition parties were showing cracks in their alliance Monday, each accusing the other of tearing the opposition apart over a contest to seat up a lawmaker in the next nine-member panel that selects judges.

Opposition leader and Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid released a statement saying that “the opposition must no longer destroy itself” and imploring allied lawmakers to rally behind his chosen candidate for the panel, party MK Karine Elharrar.

An official from Yesh Atid’s main rival, MK Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, told reporters that “Lapid is trying to put the cart before the horse and is jeopardizing the big moves we are working on,” a reference to negotiations for a compromise on the coalition’s push to overhaul the judiciary, a mutual ongoing effort hosted by President Isaac Herzog.

Adding to the tension, Labor party on Monday afternoon announced it was running MK Efrat Rayten as its candidate for the panel, but party chief Merav Michaeli said Labor would ultimately fall in line with an opposition consensus choice and urged all parties to do so as well.

The fight may prove to be moot, as the overhaul proposed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin would grant the coalition control over the appointment of judges, potentially removing the seat on the selection committee traditionally granted to the opposition.

The coalition has also not committed to convening the panel while its plan to shift its makeup to increase coalition control is still in limbo, despite a reported 80-odd judicial posts needing to be filled and two upcoming Supreme Court vacancies.

The Knesset has until June 15 to elect two MKs to join the panel, part of a four-member political complement joining three judges and two members of the Israel Bar Association. Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana on Monday set the vote on the two Knesset representatives to the panel for June 14.

Yesh Atid MKs Karin Elharrar (L) and Yoav Segalovich attend a Knesset Constitution Committee hearing, March 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Bar Association elections are to be held in three weeks between two candidates with opposing views on how to work with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and are thus also expected to also have influence over the Judicial Selection Committee.

Coalition officials including Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs and, behind closed doors, Levin have threatened to run two coalition candidates for the lawmaker slots on the panel, despite convention giving one of those spots to an opposition MK.

Labor MK Efrat Rayten speaks during a democracy conference at the Reichman University in Herzliya, January 5, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A source close to Levin said that the justice minister has yet to make up his mind on whether to push for two coalition candidates, and that, ultimately, Netanyahu will decide. Lapid’s and Gantz’s parties have threatened to quit talks at the President’s Residence should the coalition pursue that strategy.

Although the affiliation of the one MK would not deliver decisive control of the panel to any camp — a majority of seven of nine is required to elect a Supreme Court judge, and a simple majority of five for lower court judges, meaning that political and professional sides must compromise — the decision is seen as symbolic of the coalition’s good faith in ongoing reform negotiations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levin has not yet decided whom he would prefer to put forward from the coalition camp for the Judicial Selection Committee, although fellow Likud party MKs Tally Gotliv and Nissim Vituri have already signaled their interest.

The far-right Otzma Yehudit party is also promised a seat on the panel, either through the MK election or through the one minister accompanying the Justice Minister on the committee. The party said it has yet to decide who will claim the seat.

Earlier this month, Lapid staked out Elharrar, a member of the Yesh Atid’s judicial reform negotiation team, as his chosen candidate.

“According to the agreement we reached, the coalition will put forward only one candidate,” the National Unity official said in his Monday briefing.

“The Knesset speaker has not yet announced the election date and the deadline for submitting nominations, but for Lapid it was important to put the cart before the horse and announce his own candidate without coordinating with the other members of the opposition,” the official continued, stressing the need for coordination.

MK Simcha Rothman chairs a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee the Knesset, May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid similarly said that “it would be unthinkable to give Levin and [overhaul architect MK Simcha] Rothman such a gift and split the vote.”

An opposition source meanwhile said that representatives for Lapid had informed Gantz’s advisers that Yesh Atid planned to run Elharrar and had received no pushback to the plan before it was announced.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman called on the other opposition party heads to meet and choose a candidate. “I think this children’s game that we’re currently seeing is inappropriate,” he said, opening Yisrael Beytenu’s Knesset faction meeting.

Speaking to Army Radio on Monday, Rothman stressed that “the reform is not dead” and said it was incumbent upon the coalition to unilaterally press for judicial changes if agreements could not be reached at the president’s table.

Representatives from Yesh Atid, National Unity, and the coalition are set to resume their talks on Tuesday in Jerusalem.

Lapid and Gantz have long been frosty allies, never fully repairing their rift after Gantz broke up their electoral alliance to join Netanyahu in a 2020 unity government, leaving Lapid in the opposition. In the runup to last November’s Knesset election, Gantz tried to position himself as a possible prime ministerial contender, alongside frontrunners Netanyahu and Lapid, and recently has been polling ahead of Lapid as an alternative to Netanyahu.

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