Knesset Law Committee passes first stage of Israeli judicial reform

Ahead of Israeli judicial reform vote, opposition MKs were thrown out by force after chanting 'shame'

 Israeli lawmakers are restrained amid a chaotic session of the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee in Jerusalem during a debate on judicial reform, on February 13, 2023. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israeli lawmakers are restrained amid a chaotic session of the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee in Jerusalem during a debate on judicial reform, on February 13, 2023.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The first judicial reform bills passed votes to go to first reading in the Knesset at Monday morning's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee session.

Committee members voted 7-9 twice in favor of the bills, amendments to the Basic Law: The Judiciary and changes to the judge selection committee. The reading of the bill and the vote were conducted in a hurry amid vocal protest by opposition members. A follow-up vote to revise the bills failed.

From the beginning, the session opened with a chaotic scene of shouting and chanting. Opposition members shouted "shame" and "disgrace," accusing committee chairman Simcha Rothman of ruining the country.

Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav Hertzanu jumped onto the table, then leapt into the middle of the room, and approached the chairman's seat while berating Rothman.

Rothman ordered the removal of opposition MKs from the room, who resisted when security removed them by force. Disruptions continued for more than half an hour, preventing the committee from proceeding.

 Israeli lawmakers confront the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee in Jerusalem during a debate on judicial reform, on February 13, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Israeli lawmakers confront the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee in Jerusalem during a debate on judicial reform, on February 13, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

"Today, many red lines were crossed in the committee, especially towards Knesset employees. I've never seen the chief of orderlies as upset as he was this day," said Rothman.


Ministers and coalition MKs reacted to the mayhem in the committee.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich wrote on Twitter, "Dialogue is important and we will do everything in order to advance it, but unfortunately the opposition is proving again and again that it is not headed to dialogue but to the unacceptable violent use of strength. I wish to strengthen my friend, Constitution Committee chairman Simcha Rothman, who is not surrendering to violence and is running the committee's debates professionally and matter-of-factly."

Culture and Sports Minister Mikki Zohar said in a statement, "The violent and disgraceful disturbance by the Knesset member from the opposition in the Constitution Committee is the crossing of a red line and a severe blow to the heart of democracy."

Zohar continued, "Even if we have arguments and differences of opinion – it is prohibited no matter what to jump over tables, violently clash with ushers and behave in the Israeli Knesset like the last of the anarchists. We have one state and one Knesset. Enough with the divisiveness."

After the vote, the committee returned for further discussion. Several leaders of opposition parties made appearances at the deliberations.

Labor Party leader Meirav Michaeli attacked the proceedings, saying that Rothman shamed the committee.

"We've seen how the debates have been held the last few weeks," she said.

Blue and White MK Benny Gantz attacked the reform proceedings as fragmented and hurried. This was in contrast to the current system, which had a planned structure for checks and balances with details to support this objective.

"Shooting while moving is not accurate shooting," said Gantz.

Gantz said that reforms need to serve the security of the state, not the interests of politicians. He noted that while the majority sets the agenda in a democratic state, there were other democratic elements that needed to also be taken into account.

One MK announced that there would be no vote today.

MK Ahmad Tibi said that while the current law system had not been sympathetic to the Arab sector, and Arab citizens have not come out strong in support of the protests, the new system would undoubtedly be worse for the minority population.

The vote on Monday was held despite President Isaac Herzog's call last night to halt the legislative proceedings, and the coalition is planning on bringing the first of the judicial reform's provisions to a vote on its first reading either on Wednesday or next Monday (February 20), a spokesperson for Levin confirmed on Monday morning.

Votes on first readings do not usually happen on Wednesdays, and the general assumption is that they will only be voted on Monday, leaving the sides a full week to try to begin a process of negotiation.

Levin, the architect of the reforms, gave a mixed message in a statement late Sunday night. While he welcomed the president's speech and supported dialogue, he rejected the proposal to halt the legislation.

"There is in his [Herzog's] proposal positive components, but there are also components that perpetuate the current improper state," Levin said. "As I said throughout the entire process, I am willing and interested in holding real dialogue with opposition members who agree to do so, and this should happen immediately."

"In order for the dialogue not to become a way to drag on in order to delay and prevent an essential and significant reform in the legal system, we should not link the dialogue and the advancement of the legislative proceedings.

"Alongside the legislation, we all have enough time in order to talk and arrive at understandings before the second and third readings."

Other ministers and Knesset members from the Likud had mixed responses to Herzog's call on Sunday night to begin negotiations based on a five-point plan before the first law of the government's judicial reform reaches the plenum for its first reading.

Knesset Economy Committee chair MK David Bitan and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (FADC) MK Yuli Edelstein supported the proposal.

Bitan said on Army Radio on Monday morning, "There is no alternative, we need to arrive at a compromise – Netanyahu is not getting involved because of his conflict of interest. We can pass law proposals from both sides in their first reading in the Knesset, and then in the second and third reading pass a different proposal," he said.

Edelstein, who has mostly kept quiet on the judicial reform up until now, wrote on Twitter, "The changes in the judicial system are in our souls, and in order to carry them out – we need to start dialogue immediately. This is not a zero-sum game and the goal is a deep and essential change to the judicial system. Other than extreme hawks, everyone understands the importance of the matter and therefore there is no reason to bunker down in our position, when we can and must do it together, for the good of all of the people of Israel."

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi rejected the president's claim.

"During the time of the fraud [Bennet-Lapid] government, when they cursed and vilified God's name, I didn’t hear anyone offer a compromise. When they hunted yeshiva students and Torah learners, when they trampled Likudniks, tradition, Zionism, there was no call for dialogue. Hypocrisy is the name of the game and we stopped playing a long time ago. Continue the reform at all strength," Karhi wrote.  

Israeli Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to vote on judicial reform

The judicial reforms were first proposed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin in early January.

The bills approved by the committee would see the composition of the judge selection committee altered to create an automatic majority for the coalition. Further, the High Court of Justice would be restricted in its use of judicial review related to Basic Laws.