Overhaul talks return to fore as opposition sets ultimatum on judge selection panel

Yesh Atid threatens to walk away from negotiations if its MK isn’t chosen as committee member and if key panel doesn’t convene by end of June

Then-prime minister Yair Lapid, center, then-Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and then-Energy Minister Karine Elharrar hold a press conference on the maritime border deal with Lebanon at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, October 12, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Then-prime minister Yair Lapid, center, then-Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and then-Energy Minister Karine Elharrar hold a press conference on the maritime border deal with Lebanon at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, October 12, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The compromise talks between coalition and opposition representatives on the government’s judicial overhaul plan are nearing a crucial juncture, focusing on selecting the lawmakers who will be members of the Judicial Selection Committee, amid aggressive demands from the opposition and threats to step away from the negotiations.

The legislation has been frozen since late March, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying he was giving a chance for talks with the opposition under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog to try to find a broadly accepted compromise for judicial reform. But months of talks have not produced a breakthrough, and pressure has increased within the coalition to resume the legislative push.

One of the centerpieces of the overhaul is legislation that would give governing coalitions extensive control over the overwhelming majority of judicial appointments in Israel, by giving the coalition a built-in majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.

The bill is on the cusp of being passed into law, and can be brought for its final, back-to-back votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice.

However, such action is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public opposition, similar to the demonstrations last seen before the legislation was frozen in late March to make way for compromise talks.

The Yesh Atid party and other opposition sources cited by Hebrew media over the weekend said they will demand that an opposition member, Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar, be selected as one of the two lawmakers on the soon-to-be-formed Judicial Selection Committee, or else they will walk away from the compromise talks.

The Knesset must pick its two representatives by June 15. The panel also includes three sitting Supreme Court justices, two members of the Bar Association, the justice minister and another minister.

The Judicial Selection Committee during the 34th government of Israel convenes, with then Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked together with Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and other members of the committee, February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

It has been customary over the years to select one coalition MK and one opposition MK to serve on the panel, though this isn’t mandatory and the coalition could elect to pick two coalition lawmakers. Earlier this month, Government Secretary Yossi Fuchs threatened to choose two coalition MKs if there was no agreement between the government and the opposition in the compromise talks.

The opposition is also demanding that the committee convene soon after its parliamentary members are chosen — by the end of June — setting a de facto deadline for the compromise talks. The opposition says this is needed to fill dozens of currently unfilled judge positions in various courts around the country.

Netanyahu said early Wednesday that after the passage of the state budget, “of course” the overhaul was back on the government’s agenda. Later that day, he added, however: “We will of course continue with our efforts to arrive at a broad consensus agreement, to the extent possible, on the issue of judicial reform.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with the architects of the proposed judicial overhaul, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman (standing) in the Knesset on February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier this month, a key architect of the judicial plans said the coalition would go back to advancing bills in the package during the current Knesset term, even if no agreements are reached in the compromise talks.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, told Channel 12 that one such law could be the highly divisive bill to grant coalition politicians almost exclusive control over appointing judges.

Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.

On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people demonstrated nationwide against the judicial overhaul plan for the 21st week.

According to an unsourced Wednesday report, Netanyahu will pursue shakeups of the State Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office if his coalition’s negotiations with the opposition on judicial reform fall apart.

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