Knesset votes on controversial libel, judicial bills

Netanyahu: I will not allow freedom of expression to be harmed; Kadima hosts “conference to save democracy.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Knesset voted on two controversial bills in their first plenum reading on Monday night: one would increase the penalty for libel sixfold, and the other, which passed with 45 in favor and 35 opposed, seeks to regulate the Bar Association’s choice of representatives to the Judicial Selection Committee.
The “Bar Association Bill,” proposed by Israel Beiteinu faction chairman Robert Ilatov, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and others, would regulate who represents the Bar Association in the Judicial Selection Committee, enforcing that one member of the opposition and one from the coalition are appointed. This scenario takes place most times the committee meets, however, there have been cases in which, due to political pressures or the influence of Supreme Court presidents, two members of the same side – coalition or opposition – represented the Bar Association.
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The libel bill, which combines two private initiatives by MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) and MK Yariv Levin (Likud), faced attacks from coalition and opposition members throughout the day. The bill also passed its first reading.
Sheetrit and Levin’s bill would increase the penalty in a libel suit, in which damage was not proven, from NIS 50,000 to NIS 300,000. The penalty would jump to NIS 1.5 million if the media outlet does not publish a reaction from the damaged party.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended the bill following opposition protests that it is “anti-democratic,” saying, “As long as I am prime minister, Israel will continue to be a strong democracy.”
“No one will tell anyone what to think, what to write, what to investigate, what to broadcast. This is not the way of the Likud. This is not my way,” he said at a faction meeting.
“However, all parts of the nation must have freedom of expression,” Netanyahu added. “It is my job to make sure that this happens in the national-liberal spirit, moderately, responsibly, and with mutual respect.”
The prime minister said that if he thought a bill would undermine democracy “even a little bit,” he shelved it immediately.
“I will continue to lead this nation responsibly. I will protect democracy, guard freedom of expression, ensure the rights of the minority and allow all parts of the nation to express themselves,” Netanyahu added.
Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) enforced discipline on the vote, making the bill very likely to pass in its first reading, despite opposition from senior ministers such as Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor and Minister without Portfolio Bennie Begin on grounds that it limits individual freedoms.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also spoke out against the bill, saying that although “the media earned this” by not being careful enough, the increased penalty is too high.
“I oppose this bill because its message, its proportions, the penalty it carries, pours out the baby with the bathwater,” Rivlin told The Jerusalem Post. “Those harmed by the media shouldn’t have the attitude that we can live without the media. That would be more brutal than what the media says when they aren’t careful.”
In addition, two out of three Habayit Hayehudi MKs, Uri Orbach and Zevulun Orlev, said they could not vote in favor of the bill. Orlev had previously proposed a similar bill, but said on Monday that after studying its ramifications, he could not support the initiative.
Earlier Monday, Kadima MK Yoel Hasson hosted a “Conference to Save Democracy,” featuring MKs, judges and law professors, most of which opposed both controversial bills on the Knesset agenda.
In addition, Kadima enforced party discipline against voting for the bill, although it was proposed by a faction member. Sheetrit was the only Kadima MK permitted to vote in favor of the amendment to the libel law.
“This conference is to put a mirror in front of our faces so we can see that the image is no longer so complimentary,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima) said.
“Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. We shouldn’t have to pick one; Jewish values are part of democratic values. Equality is important in democracy and Judaism,” according to Livni.
However, the opposition leader explained, “these new bills break the balance and the stability. I will not allow that to happen.”
Livni accused the coalition of proposing bills that “harm the checks and balances on the government. First, the government will weaken the courts, the press and human rights NGOs. Then, they will be able to pass any laws they want, because the court will do what they want and the media will be afraid to criticize.”
Although the conference was planned in opposition of his bill and others that he supports, Elkin attended the event, saying that he “jumped on the opportunity to save and defend Israeli democracy.”
“I’m in favor of real discussion of these matters,” the coalition chairman said.
Elkin defended his Bar Association Bill, saying that it comes to regulate a situation that previously existed and was only recently broken.
“I think less regulation is better, but when a norm works well, why break it?” he asked.  “When the norms stop working, then we pass a law. It’s the Knesset’s job to make sure these things work logically.”