Rothman: Some overhaul bills will be passed soon if talks with opposition fail

Key architect of government’s judicial shakeup accuses opposition parties of deliberately trying to foil negotiations; Gantz says talks are ongoing, slams those ‘playing games’

MK Simcha Rotman, chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee seen during a meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
MK Simcha Rotman, chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee seen during a meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The coalition will advance some of the bills in its highly contentious judicial overhaul plan during the current Knesset term even if no agreements have been reached with the opposition, a key architect of the legislative push said Monday.

Speaking with Channel 12 news, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said one such law could be a highly divisive bill to significantly expand political control over the selection of judges — which has already cleared all the legislative hurdles other than its final votes in the Knesset.

“I’m convinced that parts of the reform will pass” during this term, Rothman said.

After rushing a range of overhaul legislation through the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in late March a pause to the bills over the Passover break, in order to allow for compromise talks aimed at reaching a broad agreement. Though the Knesset resumed two weeks ago, the legislation has remained frozen.

Rothman said the ball “is in the opposition’s hands,” but accused opposition legislators of having “no real desire to reach an agreement” and of deliberately bringing talks to the point of rupture.

“If there is an agreement — that will be the part that will pass,” he said, and the remaining issues will be sorted out at a later date. “If not, I expect that we will pass part of the reform, maybe even the committee for selecting judges, which is the part that is most ready for a second and third reading.”

The coalition, “without fixing the justice system, won’t be able to survive” because it will not be delivering what the public voted for, Rothman cautioned.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 30, 2023. (Emil Salman/POOL)

Rothman’s remarks came the day after a television report claimed that Justice Minister Yariv Levin is threatening to exit the government unless at least some of its judicial overhaul legislation is passed before the Knesset adjourns at the end of July.

Levin said that if the ongoing compromise talks brokered by President Isaac Herzog do not prove fruitful, he wants to move ahead with the legislation regardless, once the state budget has been passed, Channel 12 reported Sunday evening.

The justice minister — spearheading the government’s plan to exert greater political control over the judiciary — reportedly told his associates that if nothing is advanced in the next two months, “what reason do I have to be in the government?”

According to the report, Netanyahu is eager to finish the current Knesset session without bringing any of the highly contentious legislation back to the parliamentary floor. It is unclear whether he will be forced to appease Levin and other similarly minded members of his coalition.

While the talks are ongoing, it is unclear how much progress has been made. Last week, Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman urged fellow opposition figures Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz to pull out of the negotiations, casting doubt on the government’s sincerity.

Gantz said at a National Unity party faction meeting on Monday that he sees the ongoing negotiations as being “of utmost importance to democracy, to our resilience, to our security.”

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 15, 2023. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

“We hope and are working to make progress in them, and remember all the time that reaching agreements that will preserve democracy is critical,” he said, warning that “if anyone plays games, they will harm the citizens of Israel, and they will bear responsibility and the consequences.”

Gantz said Israel’s strong, independent judiciary is an integral part of its perceived successes in the recent Operation Shield and Arrow against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza.

In particular, he pointed to “constitutional and legal” cover for using the Iron Dome air defense and implementing targeted assassinations, as well as preserving the ability to launch a surprise attack by obtaining the attorney general’s approval, rather than convening a cabinet meeting.

Responding to Rothman’s remarks on Monday, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer tweeted: “Just as we said from the first day of the talks at the President’s Residence — everything is a smokescreen to silence the protests.”

“Netanyahu and Levin are not interested in broad agreements,” he wrote, predicting that the government will push ahead with the legislation no matter what, as soon as it has managed to pass the budget.

MK Oded Forer, chair of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee, oversees a hearing on Hebrew teacher shortages on January 18, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

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.

The issue was largely put on the back burner during the five-day conflict with Gaza, which culminated in a ceasefire on Saturday night.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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