Report: Coalition may rush to take over judge selection, slow some other bills

TV network says aim would be to pass core part of radical reform, while trying to sap energy from protests by delaying certain other elements

Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition is weighing quickly passing one of the most significant elements of its judicial overhaul — the takeover of the Judicial Selection Committee — while slowing down work on many of the other bills making up the plan, in an effort to sap the energy out of mass protests against the program, according to an unconfirmed report Friday night.

Channel 12 said that under such a plan, the cabinet could move to pass legislation within days giving it full power to appoint judges, including to the Supreme Court, as this is the most crucial part of the overhaul in the eyes of Justice Minister Yariv Levin. It would also move to assert control over the appointment of the chief justice.

This would allow the government to appoint three new justices of its choice to the court in the coming year (due to the upcoming retirement of three judges, including Chief Justice Esther Hayut).

Meanwhile, canceling the current seniority system for the appointment of the chief justice would enable the coalition to appoint its own candidate. As it is the chief justice who selects the judicial panels for various cases that come before the court, this would give the coalition significant leverage over the court’s agenda and potentially its rulings.

Channel 12’s political reporter Daphna Liel stressed that the government does not intend to abandon other tranches of its plan, but simply to slow them down in order to try to calm public protests, which have been galvanized in part by the deluge of radical bills that make up the current legislative agenda, and which Levin has said he aims to pass into law before the Knesset breaks for Passover two weeks from now.

The unsourced report could not be independently confirmed.

It is doubtful that such a plan would do much to quell mass demonstrations against the government, as its bid to assert control of the committee that elects judges is widely seen by critics as one of the most perilous elements of the plan, politicizing the court and depriving it of independence.

Israelis wave national flags as they protest against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The government’s current legislative plan, as it stands, will also drastically curb the High Court’s capacity to overturn legislation, allow the Knesset to override any such court rulings with the barest majority, and leave basic human and civil rights in Israel without guaranteed protection from the governing majority. Opponents argue it will radically weaken Israel’s democratic character and remove a key element of its checks and balances. Supporters call it a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.

The overhaul plans have drawn intense public criticism and fierce opposition across Israel, sparking mass protests and dire warnings from economists, legal professionals, academics and security officials. Protesters have been pouring into the streets since January in multiple days of “disruption” and “resistance.”

The latest mass protests are set to take place throughout the country on Saturday evening. Recent weeks have seen numbers at the Saturday rallies continuously grow, with last week’s events believed to have drawn over 300,000 throughout the country (organizers claimed half a million demonstrators).

On Wednesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners rejected President Isaac Herzog’s long-gestating proposal for a broadly agreed-upon reform, asserting it perpetuates the existing situation in which, they say, the court has too much power to overrule government decisions.

President Isaac Herzog delivers an address to the nation over the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, March 9, 2023. (GPO)

Opposition leaders expressed cautious approval for the framework as a basis for talks, while lashing the government for quickly dismissing what Herzog had presented as the last, best chance to avoid a catastrophic tear in the fabric of Israeli society.

In a joint statement Wednesday night, faction leaders in Netanyahu’s 64-seat coalition slammed Herzog’s offer as “one-sided, biased and unacceptable.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid warned that Israel was being “torn to pieces” by the government’s legislative push, excoriating it for not approaching the president’s framework “with respect for his position, the seriousness with which it was written and the values on which it is based.”

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