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Has the Israeli government’s opportunity to reform the judiciary passed?

June 15, 2023 at 1:24 pm

People gather to stage a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s regulations restricting the powers of the judiciary in Caesarea, Israel on June 03, 2023. [ Samir Abd Al Hade – Anadolu Agency]

In what Reuters referred to as a “blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition,” the Israeli Knesset voted for Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar, the opposition candidate for the Judicial Selection Committee, rather than the government’s choice, Likud MK Tally Gotliv.

This surprised the far-right coalition parties. They are losing their domination over the panel which is responsible for choosing judges in Israel, including those of the Supreme Court. The Knesset vote is the first obstacle ahead of the coalition’s plan to reform the judiciary based on an extreme right-wing agenda.

Following the announcement Elharrar had won the vote, coalition members traded allegations of betrayal and secret plans to undermine the planned judicial overhaul. According to the Times of Israel, several coalition members directed their ire at Likud.

Israel’s Channel 12 quoted a Likud MK as saying that Netanyahu knew about a plan to choose the opposition candidate for the very important Knesset committee. The MK pointed out that many believe that Netanyahu accepted this in order to quell the anger of the opposition.

Although the opposition sought to postpone the vote, Netanyahu didn’t agree. As a result, opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz declared on Wednesday that they were freezing their participation in negotiations for consensual judicial reform. Netanyahu called for them not to do so. A number of coalition members accused him of appeasing the opposition when he asked them to go ahead with the vote.

READ: Israel judiciary plans on the line with Knesset vote on panel members

Channel 12 noted that the unnamed Likud lawmaker claimed that Netanyahu knew that Elharrar would be chosen and “was not surprised by the result.” The MK hinted that he was among the Likud MKs who voted for Elharrar, arguing that he saved the coalition from the troubles caused by the justice minister. “We saved Netanyahu from Yariv Levin,” he said.

Choosing Elharrar is not the whole story, though, as there will be another candidate to be chosen for the committee within 30 days. It is expected to be Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kroizer. Nevertheless, the far-right has lost its total full grip on the committee.

Netanyahu backs down on judicial reform as protests rage Israel - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Netanyahu backs down on judicial reform as protests rage Israel – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Justice Minister Levin has the power to paralyse the work of the committee as he is able to block the vote or put it off, although if he did the Knesset might intervene. In any case, the coalition government’s opportunity to push its judicial overhaul through appears appears to have passed.

Haaretz reported that another lawmaker from the ruling coalition expected that a number of the right-wing MKs might stop supporting the judicial overhaul so that it would never get the support of the Knesset. “More and more ministers and MKs in the coalition are signalling to Netanyahu to back down from the reforms and distance himself from Yariv Levin,” the MK told the newspaper.

Yoav Gallant’s suggestion in March that the judicial overhaul should be delayed led to Netanyahu firing him as Defence Minister. This could be supporting evidence of what the lawmaker spoke to Haaretz about; Netanyahu was obliged to back down from sacking Gallant under pressure from huge numbers of protesters in the streets of the occupation state.

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Ynet News reported that National Unity lawmaker Chili Tropper is exerting a lot of effort to get right-wing MKs to defect from the coalition. The serious economic situation in Israel and the migration of businesses are important weapons for use by those who are against the judicial overhaul to persuade potential defectors to make the move. Yesh Atid MK Meir Cohen has, reports Walla, lobbied 12 such people. If this proves to be true, not only is the judicial overhaul at stake, but also the continued existence of the coalition itself.

The embarrassing result of the Judicial Selection Committee vote, said the Times of Israel, reflected the feeling that Netanyahu can’t control Likud MKs. Moreover, his government’s judicial reform plan is threatened by apparent mutual mistrust among coalition members. Kan public broadcaster reported Gotliv as saying: “The traitors in the Likud did not vote for opposition representatives on their own accord. It is bigger than this. It is exactly what the prime minister wanted. The cat came out of the bag and we discovered the true face of the coalition.”

Labour MK Efrat Rayten, who took part in counting the votes, said that Gotliv told her before the vote took place, “I will only have one vote, mine, I am sure that no one will vote for me.” In an interview with Channel 12, Likud’s Miki Zohar called the coalition members who supported Elharrar “traitors”.

Another Likud MK, May Golan, accused her colleagues of cheating the mandate that the people gave them in the General Election. “They took the mandate the public gave them, and defrauded and cheated them,” she tweeted. Meanwhile, the justice minister described the current committee membership as “invalid” and “unworthy” of a democracy.

Any coalition which generates so much discontent and disagreement among its members surely cannot have long to stay in power. The controversial judicial overhaul seems to be a step too far for the extreme far-right government in Israel. All opportunities to push it through appear to have passed it by.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.