First judicial overhaul legislation approved in committee amid ferocious opposition

Bill would let gov’t choose judges, make Basic Laws immune from court; Rothman: Gaps between sides surmountable; opposition MKs oppose measures with protest song, cries of ‘Shame!’

Lawmakers from the opposition are ejected from the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting at the Knesset on February 13, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Lawmakers from the opposition are ejected from the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting at the Knesset on February 13, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid extraordinary scenes and furious denunciations by opposition MKs, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday morning approved sending the first piece of legislation to radically overhaul the judiciary for its first reading in the Knesset plenum.

The legislation would give the government control over all judicial appointments and bar the High Court from striking down quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

Ahead of the debate, committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionism party and a key architect of the move indicated that he was willing to negotiate about the reforms, but did not delay the initial votes.

Opposition MKs remonstrated ferociously with Rothman during the hearing ahead of the vote to approve the legislation for its first reading, accusing him of riding roughshod over Knesset procedure and violating the legislative process.

Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav Hertzanu jumped over the committee table and furiously approached Rothman, jabbing his finger and shouting at him, while his Yesh Atid colleague MK Vladimir Beliak joined Lahav Hertzanu at the center of the committee room on the floor and resisted being ejected by Knesset orderlies who had to manhandle the MKs out of the room. Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky burst into tears.

The committee meeting opened with opposition lawmakers singing “Ein Li Eretz Aheret” — “I Have No Other Land” — and banging on the table.

The opposition MKs soon moved on to more strident denunciations, chanting “disgrace” and “shame” before at least 14 of them were ejected.

A stormy Constitution Committee meeting on the government’s planned judicial overhaul at the Knesset on February 13, 2023.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

They continued their chants of “shame” outside the door of the committee room, with Labor MK Gilad Kariv and Yesh Atid MK Ron Katz engaging in fierce rows with Knesset orderlies, resulting in screaming matches in the Knesset’s hallways.

The protests in the Knesset came as tens of thousands gathered outside to demonstrate against the overhaul.

The legislation being passed as an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary gives the government and coalition full control over all judicial appointments in Israel, including to the Supreme Court, while also prohibiting the Supreme Court in its role as the High Court of Justice from striking down Basic Laws.

The different components of the legislation were approved by votes of nine to seven, and the bill will now be brought to the Knesset plenum for its first reading either on Wednesday or next Monday.

Thousands protest against the judicial overhaul outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 12, 2023 (Courtesy Arie Leib Abrams/FLASH90)

The legislation changes the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee and gives the government and coalition five of the panel’s nine members, with a simple majority needed to make appointments.

Under the terms of the bill, the committee will comprise three cabinet ministers, including the justice minister who will serve as committee chair; three MKs — two from the coalition and one from the opposition; the Supreme Court president; and two retired judges to be appointed by the justice minister in agreement with the Supreme Court president.

This would give the government and coalition an automatic majority on the judicial selection committee.

The current composition of the committee gives neither the government or the judiciary a majority for appointing Supreme Court judges, but does give the judges on the committee together with the Israel Bar Association representatives a majority over elected officials for appointing lower court judges.

A critical clause in the bill asserts that the High Court of Justice will have no authority to strike down Basic Laws or order them to be amended.

Applicants for positions on the High Court will be summoned to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for public hearings.

Rothman opened the committee session on Monday morning by praising President Isaac Herzog’s call for compromise a day earlier, and claimed that the gaps between the two sides were not insurmountably wide.

“I welcome the initiative of the president to hold a real dialogue that will deal with ways to correct the judicial system and to restore the relationship between it and the various government authorities,” said Rothman.

MK Simcha Rothman (C) at the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting at the Knesset on February 13, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The gaps that exist between the president’s opening outline and the drafts of the bill I submitted, or the outline presented by minister [Yariv] Levin, are not negligible, but they are not large either,” said the Religious Zionism MK, who a day earlier insisted that the parties “can hold talks [later] between the first plenary reading and the second and third.”

Nevertheless, he said the legislative process would be voted on in committee despite the president’s request for a slowdown.

Addressing the committee after the votes were taken, National Unity leader MK Benny Gantz called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the legislation and create a bipartisan working group to formulate a compromise reform proposal.

The former defense minister said that preserving the rule of law was a critical challenge for the State of Israel.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

“If we do not find a way to preserve the law in the State of Israel and let the rule of law be what guides our life in the State of Israel — then we will not be a democratic state,” said Gantz.

He argued that the current system of selecting judges where all branches of government have significant influence over the process led to appointments by consensus.

“What this new legislation does is to dismantle this system and in its place establishes a tyranny of the majority, and this is not democracy,” Gantz declared.

Government ministers and coalition MKs condemned the actions of the opposition MKs in the committee, saying the ruckus cast doubts on whether or not they were interested in compromise at all.

“Dialogue is important and we will do everything to engage in it,” tweeted Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of Religious Zionism.

“But sadly, the opposition proves again and again that it is not interested in dialogue but rather violent and unacceptable belligerence. I congratulate my colleague, Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman for not surrendering to violence and running the committee hearings with professionalism,” added Smotrich.

Likud MK Danny Danon said in a similar vein that he supports “open dialogue” to reach compromise, but said opposition MKs “have behaved disgracefully.”

“I remind the members of the opposition — you lost the elections. Just like we managed to accept the judgment of the electorate in the expulsion from Gush Katif [the Israeli settlements in Gaza], so too you are expected to accept the democratic decision.”

Kariv denounced Rothman for praising Herzog’s speech last night calling for compromise but rejecting his direct appeal to halt the overhaul and deliberate on the president’s proposals before approving the legislation for a first reading.

The Labor MK and former chair of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee accused Rothman of failing to allow opposition MKs to speak before the votes on the legislation in committee, and of violating several procedural rules.

“Your behavior screams out one thing: ‘You [the opposition] don’t interest me’… There is one side that said from the outset that it is interested in dialogue and put no end of suggestions on the table, and another side that just paid lip service to the idea of dialogue and behaved in a tyrannical manner.”

While proceedings began at the Knesset, tens of thousands of protesters were making their way to Jerusalem as part of a nationwide strike and demonstration.

Demonstrators briefly blocked the entrance to Ben Gurion Airport, and children and parents blocked the Namir Road thoroughfare in north Tel Aviv.

Herzog issued an earnest plea on Sunday for deliberation and compromise on the coalition’s contentious plans to radically overhaul the judiciary.

The proposals have generated intense opposition from various  quarters of Israeli society and have led to mass weekly demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities.

The coalition, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, indicated that while it would not delay Monday’s committee votes on advancing the bills, it would wait a week before bringing them to a first vote in the plenum, instead of doing so immediately.

It signaled it was doing so to allow for talks with opponents of the judicial shakeup.

After the president presented a five-point plan as a general basis for a compromise agreement, Channel 12 news cited a “very senior coalition source” as saying: “If the heads of the opposition and Supreme Court president announce their agreement to hold discussions based on the president’s principles, they will find partners in the government with open hearts and willingness.”

Levin, who is spearheading the effort for sweeping limitations on the court’s powers, said some elements of the president’s proposal “are positive,” while others “perpetuate the existing, faulty situation.”

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