Vote on identity of MKs on judge selection panel seen as test for overhaul talks

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On Wednesday morning, lawmakers will vote to select two colleagues to sit on Israel’s judicial appointments panel, in an election politicians are looking to as a bellwether for ongoing efforts to find a compromise on remaking the country’s judiciary.

For the past month, coalition and opposition have openly sparred over how to split the two lawmaker spots on the nine-member Judicial Selection Committee — traditionally split between both sides of the aisle. Coalition officials threatened to snatch both seats if progress towards a negotiated reform is not quickly announced, whereas the opposition said it would not agree to a piecemeal deal, and itself threatened to bail on talks if not granted one of the panel’s seats.

While political camps usually come to agreements to retain only two names on the ballot by the time the Knesset engages in its closed-door vote, eight names — seven from the coalition, and one opposition candidate — remained as of Tuesday evening.

In addition to inter-camp battles, the June 14 vote also caused ripples within each side’s ranks.

The opposition is now united behind Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar as its candidate, but spent two weeks bickering over whether the pick would come from opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, or from one of the bloc’s other factions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud promised a seat to far-right Otzma Yehudit in its December deal to form the coalition, and Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kreuzer is thus the coalition’s leading candidate. Alongside Kreuzer, Otzma Yehudit also nominated MK Limor Son Har Melech, as a backup to fulfill a legal requirement that one of the lawmaker representatives be a woman.

Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar submits her nomination for the judicial appointments panel, June 7, 2023. (Courtesy)

Similarly, two ministerial spots in the committee also need at least one female representative. As Justice Minister Yariv Levin is required to chair the panel, a female minister is expected to be appointed to round out the committee’s four politician spots.

Six Likud lawmakers also submitted their names for consideration, in moves not coordinated with Netanyahu. MK Nissim Vaturi rescinded his candidacy earlier this week but MKs Tally Gotliv, Eli Dellal, Moshe Saada, Avichai Buaron and Moshe Passal remain on the ballot.

In addition, Shas has fielded MK Uriel Busso as a candidate, in case the coalition does decide to take two seats.

On Wednesday at 9 a.m., coalition party heads will meet to align on final candidates and strategy. Immediately thereafter, Likud will meet, where Netanyahu is expected to attempt to impose order upon his party an hour ahead of the anticipated vote.

Netanyahu is believed to support splitting the seats with the opposition, in order to not blow up negotiations at the President’s Residence and rekindle popular protests against his government. He is expected to pressure lawmakers from his camp to rescind excess nominations before the contest. Given that the vote is anonymous and each MK can select two picks, surplus choices both endanger the coalition’s control over its own pick and the ability to guarantee the opposition a seat.

The Judicial Selection Committee sits at the center of the coalition’s currently frozen plan to remove judicial checks on political power. It currently includes nine members: Two MKs, two ministers, two representatives of the Israel Bar Association and three Supreme Court judges, including the court president.

A majority of five votes is required to appoint most judges, while Supreme Court picks need seven votes.

Levin last week called Israel’s current method of appointing judges “invalid” and “unsuited” to a democracy, as it forces elected leaders to compromise with judges and bar association representatives in order to approve Supreme Court picks. Levin’s critics say this is precisely the check on political power that ensures moderate, consensus choices rather than politicized hardliners.

Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kreuzer speaks with Israel’s Channel 7 in January 2023. (YouTube screenshot/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Levin has been reported to threaten he could block the committee from meeting if its makeup is not to his liking, despite a backlog of over 80 judicial appointments and two upcoming Supreme Court vacancies.

Meanwhile, opposition leaders have demanded that the committee be convened, but have few tools to force the issue.

Should the coalition take both seats, the move would boost its chances to grab hold over appointments. Next week, the Israel Bar Association is having its most politically relevant election to date, between two candidates who stand on opposite sides of support for Levin’s overhaul. If Effi Naveh is chosen over interim bar head Amit Becher, then he is likely to appoint two committee representatives favorable to Levin.

At that point, the coalition would have six seats in its camp, one more than is necessary to both push through lower court picks and to appoint the next Supreme Court president, as incumbent Esther Hayut will hit mandatory retirement at age 70 in October.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut at a court session to hear petitions against the Jewish Nation State Law, December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But holding all four political spots unlocks a further possibility: Seven votes are necessary to appoint a Supreme Court justice, and if the new president — who is guaranteed a seat on the panel — is aligned with the coalition, the coalition will then be able to tap its desired justices for the court without changing the committee’s makeup at all.

In March, Netanyahu paused the Levin-led shakeup plan amid mass protests, but left a bill that would give the government direct control over key court picks in its final legislative stage, able to be quickly ushered through final votes.

On Tuesday, opposition and coalition lawmakers took to social media to mutually accuse each other of endangering talks, which have yet to claim tangible progress.

Panel candidate Buaron wrote that “if the left does not come to an agreement with us after everything we have done and the meaningful softening we’ve applied to the reform itself, it means that the left is blowing up the talks.”

The Likud MK said that in this case, the coalition should appoint two of its own to the panel and advance certain aspects of its overhaul push unilaterally.

National Unity Party leader MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Chili Tropper, part of National Unity’s negotiating team, claimed in a Facebook post that elements of both camps are “trying to blow up the talks and prevent broad agreement.”

National Unity, under the leadership of MK Benny Gantz, has strived to pitch itself as a centrist, middle-ground party that is prioritizing consensus — while maintaining its insistence on an independent judiciary — over politics.

On Monday, opposition party head Avigdor Liberman — who has kept his Yisrael Beytenu party out of talks at the President’s Residence — said he believed opposition leaders would sign a piecemeal deal in exchange for placing Elharrar on the panel.

Gantz soon afterward denied any plans to do so, reaffirming his commitment to only sign a complete deal that would bar any additional judicial changes not agreed within it.

In addition to electing lawmakers to the Judicial Selection Committee on Wednesday, the Knesset will also vote to staff MKs on a number of panels to nominate religious court judges.

In particular, lawmakers will join committees to choose Jewish rabbinic judges and Muslim and Druze qadis.

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