Smotrich: We’re listening to critics but our law to choose judges will pass next week

Finance minister says coalition seeking dialogue but has mandate to carry out comprehensive judicial reform; Lapid: They’re destroying democracy; Gantz denounces hypocrisy

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman hold a press conference in the Knesset, March 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman hold a press conference in the Knesset, March 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich asserted on Tuesday that the government was attentive to the concerns of opponents to the judicial overhaul program, but would nevertheless go ahead and pass the first, major stage of that program into law next week, giving the coalition substantial control over the appointment of Israel’s judges, including choosing the next two members of the High Court.

Speaking at the Knesset alongside MK Simcha Rothman, a member of his ultranationalist Religious Zionism party and one of the architects of the judicial shakeup, Smotrich spoke in conciliatory tones and indicated that the government had decided to postpone approval of other pillars of its radical agenda until after the Knesset’s Passover recess.

The minister reiterated right-wing comments regarding the ostensible necessity of the steps the government is advancing and insisted that the coalition was united in its intent to carry out the sweeping reforms, while calling on the opposition to negotiate in order to reach a “balanced” arrangement.

Asked whether he would comply with any future High Court ruling striking down the judicial overhaul legislation as unconstitutional, Smotrich declined to answer, calling the question “illegitimate” and saying he did not believe the court would issue such a ruling.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid accused Smotrich of lying regarding his willingness to compromise and pointed out that the coalition was pressing ahead with its legislative agenda, while National Unity leader Benny Gantz described the finance minister’s comments as “hypocritical” for the same reason.

Smotrich’s remarks come against a backdrop of heightened threats from IDF reservists not to perform reserve duty and warnings by senior Finance Ministry officials about the harm the judicial overhaul may do to the economy.

Members of the ‘Brothers in Arms’ IDF reservists organization hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, chaired by Rothman, is set on Wednesday to begin the voting process in committee to approve the first pillar of the judicial overhaul, giving governing coalitions extensive control over all judicial appointments, for its final votes in the Knesset plenum next week.

The bill would give a governing coalition full control over the first two appointments to the Supreme Court which open up during its tenure and require the support of one opposition member for a third appointment, and the support of both an opposition member and a judicial representative for a fourth. The government also plans to change the Supreme Court presidency appointment process, to allow the coalition to appoint the chief justice, further boosting its control over the appointment of justices to the High Court and potentially giving it full control over appointments to lower courts.

“Today, we, the elected representatives of the national camp, are united to reform. Exactly as we promised you, the citizens of Israel,” said Smotrich.

“But it is important to us to be diligent in doing this responsibly, in a balanced format that takes into account the positions of our brothers who disagree with our positions.

“We do not belittle their positions and concerns. We listen to them and need to respond to them,” he said.

The finance minister added that the government had sought dialogue over the overhaul program from the outset and called on the opposition to engage in such a process, but insisted that the judicial appointments bill would be passed into law next week.

“The bill that will be brought to the Knesset plenum next week will carry out an important reform,” he said, claiming it would prevent judges from “appointing themselves,” though the current makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee does not give the judges on the panel the ability to appoint judges without the agreement of the ruling coalition.

“No longer will there be a minority of elected representatives [on the committee] and a veto for judges and jurists. The people in all its parts will influence in an appropriate and balanced manner the character of the next judges.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich presents the state budget at his Jerusalem ministry, February 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Smotrich said the government would continue with the rest of the legal overhaul agenda in the coming months, and would do so “slowly, carefully, attentively, and through full dialogue with anyone who wants to be a part of the process, in order to influence the outcome.”

He said that there were “voices in our camp” who had wished to see the approval of the entire judicial and legal overhaul, but said that doing so without compromise would not be correct.

“Out of our responsibility to the unity of the nation and in order to lead this process through broad consensus, we decided to slow down and extend our hand for dialogue and discourse,” said Smotrich, adding that the government’s plan “isn’t the end of democracy, and those who claim otherwise are doing so for ulterior motives.”

Lapid rejected the finance minister’s comments.

“For those who did not understand the truth behind all of Smotrich and Rothman’s lies: They are continuing with the legislation,” tweeted Lapid.

“They are continuing to destroy the economy, continuing to dismantle the IDF, continuing to threaten to not obey the rulings of the High Court, destroying democracy, tearing the nation apart, but refuse to take responsibility for their actions and just blame others.”

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul bills in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Gantz said Smotrich’s comments demonstrated “endless hypocrisy,” adding, “While they are conducting the destruction of the justice system in the Constitution Committee, Smotrich and Rothman are calling to stop and talk.”

The former defense minister continued: “The destruction is on your heads. The destruction is on Netanyahu’s head. Stop everything and we can talk tonight.”

Other elements of the coalition’s legislation currently being advanced through the Knesset would bar the High Court of Justice from reviewing Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws; severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws deemed incompatible with those Basic Laws; allow the Knesset to pass laws which are preemptively immune from judicial review by the High Court, and to re-legislate laws the justices do strike down.

Critics say this marks a revolutionary change in Israel’s governance, politicizing the judiciary and essentially removing the ability of the High Court to act as a check on the governing coalition, including in protecting basic human and civil rights. It would leave almost all power in the hands of the political majority, and move Israel from a liberal democracy to another system of governance, experts warn.

Supporters retort that the judiciary has gained far too much power over the past several decades and the government’s proposals will restore the balance of power between the branches of government.

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