Yesh Atid mulling plan for all opposition MKs to resign to protest judicial overhaul

MK Elazar Stern says not all parties agree to potential move, colleague Debbie Biton says it’s ‘definitely on the table’

A discussion on the government's judicial overhaul plans in the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A discussion on the government's judicial overhaul plans in the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yesh Atid lawmakers are considering a proposal for the entire Knesset opposition to collectively resign from parliament to protest against the government’s judicial overhaul proposal, two lawmakers told Hebrew media on Tuesday.

If carried out in full, it would leave the 120-member Knesset and all its committees manned exclusively by the 64-member coalition.

“I know of the idea,” MK Elazar Stern told Army Radio when asked if such a move was being discussed, but added “not everyone is with us,” noting that some members of the opposition, particularly of the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al party, were not behind the proposal, which made it difficult to pursue.

“I don’t think we are there yet,” he added. Stern refused to elaborate if the idea had been completely abandoned.

Yesh Atid MK Debbie Biton also told 104.5 FM radio that the step was being considered.

“It came up. The decision will be for the whole faction” to make, she said, adding, “It is definitely on the table.”

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern attends a meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in Jerusalem, on February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was not immediately clear what the consequences would be if the opposition took an unprecedented step of this sort. Under normal circumstances, if an MK resigns their place is taken by the next person on their party slate.

Opposition lawmakers slammed the government after it passed legislation on Tuesday aiming to amend the Basic Law: The Judiciary to cement government control over judicial appointments and revoke the High Court’s ability to review Basic Laws.

Although it is only the first of several planned bills that make up the government’s sweeping judicial reform, the vote was a potential turning point in political discourse over the government’s plan. Its coalition backers had said they would engage in “dialogue” with the opposition once the bill cleared its first reading, but opposition leaders had warned that carrying out the first reading could be a death knell to any potential negotiations, potentially leading to more drastic measures, like a collective resignation of the opposition.

“Coalition members — history will judge you for tonight. For the damage to democracy, for the damage to the economy, for the damage to security, for tearing apart the nation of Israel and that you just don’t care,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid, shortly after the bill passed.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said it was “a black day for democracy,” and vowed that the struggle against the plans would continue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauded the vote as “a great night and a great day.”

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a key architect of the overhaul, hailed the vote as a move toward “bringing back democracy” by bringing wider representation to the judiciary.

Sponsored by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the bill proposes to transform the selection process for judges, effectively putting judicial appointments under full governmental control. It also would block the High Court from exercising oversight over Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. This block is also aimed at preventing High Court scrutiny over the same Basic Law amendment bill that creates the mechanism.

The legislation has been sped through the Knesset by the government in the face of fierce condemnation from the opposition, mass public protests, pleas for dialogue from President Isaac Herzog, and dire warnings from economists, security officials, legal experts, and foreign allies.

Thousands wave the Israeli flag as they protest against the judicial overhaul, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The bill will head back to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for preparation for its second and third readings to become law, which are expected by the end of March.

If approved, the legislation would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate, with a bare majority of 61 MKs, laws the court does manage to annul.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms would undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Netanyahu and other coalition members have dismissed the criticism, and Netanyahu insists the reform is overdue and will strengthen Israeli democracy.

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