‘You’re destroying Israel’: Opposition implores coalition to stop reasonableness bill

With National Unity MK making a tearful address to parliament and protesters amassed in Jerusalem, Knesset plows ahead with debate preceding final votes; faint hope of compromise

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

MK Orit Farkash Hacohen speaks during the Knesset debate on the reasonableness bill, July 23, 2022 (Knesset channel screenshot)
MK Orit Farkash Hacohen speaks during the Knesset debate on the reasonableness bill, July 23, 2022 (Knesset channel screenshot)

With protesters rallying outside parliament and emotions running high inside the plenum, the Knesset launched a debate on Sunday morning ahead of the final votes to pass a contentious bill limiting court oversight of the government. Opposition leaders pleaded with the coalition to halt the process and resume compromise talks, with one National Unity MK accusing the coalition of destroying the country.

An amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, the bill would outlaw judicial scrutiny of the “reasonableness” of cabinet or ministerial decisions.

Leveraging its slim majority, the coalition is rushing to register this first win for its broader plan to reduce judicial checks on political power before the Knesset breaks for recess at the end of month. The opposition has planned a 26-hour filibuster, in hopes of delaying the final votes to pass the bill into law until Monday evening or even Tuesday.

Some politicians were engaging in eleventh-hour attempts to pass the bill in a compromise version given the public uproar and diplomatic backlash against the government, which is accused of making unpopular, unilateral constitutional changes for its own benefit.

Coalition sources said Sunday that attempts were being made to reach an agreement but with no success to date. Opposition sources said that while informal conversations might be held between various lawmakers, no official agreements will be made without the coalition first committing to freezing its current bill and only advancing future legislation to reform the judiciary under political consensus.

Shortly after slamming the bill in the plenum, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid met with the head of the country’s largest labor union, the Histadrut, as it considers the possibility of inserting itself into the fight, including with potential strike action.

Histradrut leader Arnon Bar-David then publicized his own compromise proposal, which he said he had shared with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday. But it was swiftly rejected both by Netanyahu’s Likud party and leaders of the protest movement, with each side claiming it would be a victory for the other side.

Thousands of anti-overhaul activists march into Jerusalem on Route 1 as part of the protests against the government’s bill to severely limit the High Court of Justice’s use of the reasonableness standard, July 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Under the labor union’s plan, only decisions approved by the full cabinet, and only those on matters of policy or relating to the appointment of ministers and deputy ministers, would be shielded from the “reasonableness” test. Any further judicial legislation would require a supermajority of 75 of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers for a period of 18 months.

Lapid, in his remarks from the Knesset rostrum, said it was still possible to achieve compromise, and said that if the coalition stops its unilateral push to curb judicial power, he would return to talks hosted at the President’s Residence.

Lapid’s Yesh Atid and fellow opposition party National Unity in June pulled out of negotiations hosted by President Isaac Herzog, after accusing the coalition of delaying convening the committee that selects new judges — which has yet to meet.

“If you stop [the legislative process], we’re here. We talked to the President’s Residence. The doors there are open, waiting for us all,” Lapid said. “Waiting for us to come back and talk to prevent a disaster. To prevent the [country’s] disintegration. To prevent an extreme minority from seizing control of the lives of the Israeli majority.”

Addressing the cabinet directly, Lapid added: “We’re not seeking to defeat you on this, because then we all lose. The truth is everyone wants a compromise, but nobody knows how to reach one or what it’ll look like.”

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks in the debate before the vote on the ‘reasonableness’ bill in the Knesset, July 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Unity chief Benny Gantz used his own time on the Knesset floor to renew calls for Netanyahu to stop the bill and scramble toward consensus.

Gantz said he knows there are some coalition lawmakers who have told the prime minister that any further legislation must be advanced by consensus. “That is precisely the correct framework to use right now,” he said. “It’s possible to stop, to reach agreement on the ‘reasonableness’ measure, and to continue under a framework of full agreement.”

In remarks directed toward Netanyahu, who is currently hospitalized after being fitted with a pacemaker, the opposition party chief said that halting the process now would not be “surrender” but rather a display of “national responsibility.”

He added: “I understand the imperative to pass legislation in some form. I don’t want to crush you. But you cannot be allowed to crush the State of Israel, to take us into an unprecedented abyss.”

MK Simcha Rothman, who shepherded the bill in committee, said that the bill will return authority to elected officials by eliminating court interference in administrative decrees.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman speaks during a debate on the “reasonableness” bill, in the Knesset, Jerusalem on July 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Charging that the reasonableness test has been wielded by the court to exercise liberal political control over right-wing policy, Rothman sarcastically said: “Whenever we decide something it becomes unreasonable.”

The bill “is meant to return democracy to the State of Israel,” Rothman argued.

Lapid slapped back that 29 weeks of ongoing protests against the government’s plans show the strength of Israel’s democratic spirit.

“Israel was born democratic and we have a democratic instinct,” Lapid said.

He added that the bill “seeks to turn us into Poland and Hungary,” two countries with recent democratic backsliding, “but we are not them.”

Pointing to the tens of thousands of Israelis who marched on a major highway into Jerusalem on Saturday to protest the bill, Lapid said that citizens are unwilling to accept the government’s judicial overhaul, of which the reasonableness bill is only the planned start.

Anti-overhaul activists attend a special prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 23, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“Three generations marched yesterday and sang ‘You messed with the wrong generation,'” he said.

In addition to the Jerusalem marchers, hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested across the country to express opposition to the overhaul on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, groups for and against the changes gathered for a joint prayer service at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in favor of consensual reform.

A large rally in support of the government’s judicial shakeup is planned for Sunday evening in Tel Aviv.

Alluding to opposition warnings that Israel may be on the brink of a civil war, with longstanding social tensions stirred up by the judicial overhaul debate, Lapid said: “We didn’t march yesterday to declare war, but to prevent one. To tell the government: If you still have any sense of fairness, stop.”

Rothman cited a number of legal scholars, including law professor Yoav Dotan, to argue for the longstanding need to amend the court’s ability to use the reasonableness test. Earlier this month, Dotan testified to Rothman’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee that its proposal went far beyond his recommendations and was akin to “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

“The reasonableness test is something that has deserved criticism for more than 40 years,” Rothman said.

“The only reason it’s raising emotions… is because of one reason — they lost the election and they went out to the street against the election results and the mandate of the people, not against amendments to the reasonableness doctrine,” Rothman  claimed.

The pitched political and social battle over the proper contours of political and judicial power is a governance debate, but it also converges with deep-seated tensions among various groups in Israeli Jewish society.

Lapid said that although the government was trying to present the battle as one between elites and everyday people, protests have been sustained in cities and towns outside Israel’s economic centers, including in Beersheba, Ashdod, the Gaza periphery region, Karmiel and Hatzor HaGlilit.

Touching on the social tensions, as well broader diplomatic and economic ramifications of Israel’s governance debate, National Unity MK Orit Farkash Hacohen teared up at the Knesset rostrum, declaring that the coalition was ruining Israel.

“Our country is on fire. You’ve destroyed the country, you’ve destroyed society,” Farkash Hacohen charged, saying the government’s hard-right policies have turned Israel from “the high-tech nation into an international leper… I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I can’t believe it.”

In the week of Tisha B’Av, when the Jews mourn the destruction of the two ancient Temples as a consequence of internal feuding and intolerance, she warned, “We will destroy the third home [the modern state of Israel] because of internal hatred.”

Farkash Hacohen served as science and technology minister under the previous government until she returned to the opposition benches in December.

This is a “government of anarchists,” she said. “You think that in the name of democracy, you are entitled to unlimited power. It’s not legitimate to make this change with a simple majority.”

National Unity chair Benny Gantz attends a special prayer of anti-overhaul activists at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 23, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Her party head, Gantz, said that he was concerned that social divisions tied to the coalition’s efforts were are also spilling over into the Israel Defense Forces, as 10,000 reservists said Saturday they will not show up to voluntary duty in protest of the overhaul.

While Israeli politics generally endeavors to “keep the IDF outside of disagreements,” former defense minister Gantz said that “my fear is that is not the case today.”

Causing politicization of the military “is a national mistake and it’s a very grave failure of leadership,” Gantz added, while clarifying his position that “those serving in the IDF aren’t the ones creating the problem, they’re the ones affected by the problem.”

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