Coalition heads to meet Wednesday ahead of crucial vote on judge-picking panel

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Coalition party leaders will meet Wednesday morning to decide on the selection of the Knesset’s and the government’s representatives on the Judicial Selection Committee, which picks the nation’s judges.

The committee members from the Knesset must be picked by June 14.

The discussion around the committee has become a battlefield after the coalition tried to change its makeup as part of its now-paused judicial overhaul push.

With discussions ongoing between the coalition and opposition on a compromise to the overhaul, the sides have fought over which two Knesset representatives to send to the committee. The coalition has threatened to appoint two of its own, instead of maintaining the tradition of one coalition member and one opposition member. The opposition has warned this will end all compromise talks at the President’s Residence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely expected to back maintaining the traditional selection due to his concern that doing otherwise will reignite mass protests against his government, amid reports of potential progress in the ongoing negotiations.

Ahead of the vote, leaders of weekly protests against the government warned that “everything will ignite” if one of the selected MKs isn’t from the opposition.

“We are on alert and are available [to spring into action] at a moment’s notice,” they said in a statement. “We suggest that the government not test us.”

Knesset voting on the representatives is expected late Wednesday morning, after the meeting of coalition chiefs. Voting is by secret ballot, which could lead to some MKs voting against their bloc’s decision.

President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial overhaul negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The negotiations at the President’s Residence and the vote on the Knesset’s representatives on the Judicial Selection Committee have become increasingly interlinked in recent weeks, with opposition chiefs pledging to break off the talks if they do not receive a spot on the panel or if the government advances the overhaul legislation.

Some coalition members, including Justice Minister Yariv Levin, have advocated for retaining both spots on the Judicial Selection Committee, which would buck the custom of reserving one of the seats for an opposition lawmaker — though that custom was also disregarded by the Netanyahu-Gantz government several years ago.

Control of the committee is central to the government’s plans for overhauling the judiciary led by Levin.

However, reports have indicated Netanyahu was likely to support appointing an opposition MK.

Channel 12 reported Tuesday that the prime minister has promised his allies that should talks collapse, his government will advance certain aspects of the judicial overhaul unilaterally — though it is unclear which these would be.

The coalition’s representative on the panel is expected to be MK Yitzhak Kroizer, whose far-right Otzma Yehudit party led by Itamar Ben Gvir was promised a place on the nine-member committee in its coalition deal with Netanyahu’s Likud. The opposition is backing Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar.

A primary plank in the government’s push to remake the judiciary is a bill that would reshape the Judicial Selection Committee and hand the government an automatic majority on most choices. The committee appoints all judges, including Supreme Court justices.

Last week, Levin said he was continuing his push to overhaul the judiciary because the current system discriminates against the political right, is “invalid” and “unsuitable” for picking judges, and is “unworthy” of a democracy.

The justice minister is said to have told colleagues that regardless of the representatives chosen, he will not convene the committee — which he chairs — until he can pass the bill to change its composition, despite a backlog of about 80 judges that need to be appointed for an overtaxed judiciary.

That bill is already 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, as was seen before the legislation was frozen in late March.

Israelis hold up national flags and placards as they protest the hard-right government’s controversial judicial reform plans, in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past six months to demonstrate against the Levin-led judicial changes, at times blocking Tel Aviv’s main artery, the Ayalon Highway. Large numbers of supporters of the government’s plans have also rallied and occasionally also blocked roads, although far less often.

The judicial legislation has been frozen since late March, when Netanyahu said he would halt the plans to allow for talks with the opposition aimed at finding 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. The opposition, as well, has faced calls to withdraw from the negotiations.

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

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