Will the Knesset be back to judicial reform mayhem post-recess?

Political affairs: The new Knesset’s first session was dominated by the judicial overhaul controversy. What should we expect when it resumes its activity on April 30?

 MEMBERS OF THE opposition react during a speech by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir in the Knesset.  (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)
MEMBERS OF THE opposition react during a speech by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir in the Knesset.
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)

The first session of the 25th Knesset, which finished this week, was expected to be stormy, but nobody could have predicted how volatile it was. As the judicial overhaul of the Netanyahu government unfolded and the resultant three-month onslaught of massive protests against it stunned the country, the parliament became a battleground the likes of which had not been seen for many years.

The 25th Knesset was sworn in on November 15, and operated throughout the winter until this Sunday, when it headed to a monthlong recess for Passover, the national memorial days and Independence Day. What were the significant moments of the new Knesset’s first four-and-a-half months, and what are we to expect when the Knesset’s summer session begins on April 30?

The results of the November 1 election heralded what many hoped was the end of over three years of political turmoil, including five elections, as the right-wing bloc composed of the Likud, Religious Zionist Party, United Torah Judaism and Shas scored a clear victory, winning 64 seats.

A government was expected to form quickly, perhaps by the end of November. But it gradually became apparent that this would take more time than expected, as the Likud attempted to juggle the demands of its soon-to-be partners while maintaining its status as the dominant party.

On November 13, President Isaac Herzog awarded Likud chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu the mandate to form a government within 28 days. As the December 11 deadline approached, Netanyahu requested and received an additional 10 days. With just 12 minutes remaining until the deadline on December 21, the soon-to-be prime minister announced that he had succeeded in forming a government. This was announced to the Knesset on December 26, and the Knesset ratified the new government on December 29, nearly two months after the election.

 PM Netanyahu at the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in the Knesset, December 29 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) PM Netanyahu at the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in the Knesset, December 29 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The result of the tumultuous period of coalition negotiations was a long list of promises to every one of the parties, including Otzma Yehudit and Noam, who negotiated their agreements independently of the Religious Zionist Party and eventually broke away officially.

Many of these promises created public uproar: a provision in the RZP agreement that would enable service providers to refuse to give service if it was against their religious belief, possibly opening the door for discrimination against women, LGBT and others; a pledge to United Torah Judaism to increase state funding for its private school system, without demanding core secular studies in return; an agreement to give Noam’s Avi Maoz control over a branch in the Education Ministry responsible for approving external programs in schools; and a list of controversial appointments, such as Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister, RZP’s Bezalel Smotrich as minister within the Defense Ministry responsible for civil matters in the West Bank, and Shas chairman MK Arye Deri finance minister during the second half of the government’s term.

In addition, all of the parties agreed that any legislation regarding Israel’s governing system proposed by the justice minister would take precedence over all other legislation.

As the makeup of the government began to come into focus throughout December, a race against time began in the Knesset in order to pass four laws that the soon-to-be coalition members put down as preconditions to entering a government.

Two laws were intended to enable the actual appointments: the “Smotrich Law,” which allowed the concept of a second minister within a ministry, and the “Deri Law,” which enabled Deri to serve as a minister despite a suspended jail sentence from the beginning of 2022.

A third law blocked the option of four MKs from unilaterally breaking away from a party in order to form an independent party. This had to do with fear of mutiny within the Likud from MKs who did not receive positions they wanted.

The fourth and most controversial law was the “Ben-Gvir Law,” intended to give Ben-Gvir unprecedented power over the Israel Police. A fierce legislative battle over the law erupted during the second half of December, in a Knesset committee formed specially to pass this law. The law eventually split into two. Its more problematic aspect – subjugating the Israel Police commissioner directly to the national security minister – was delayed, while the law’s general aspects, which gave the minister power to set policy for the police, passed into law on December 28.

This set the stage for the government’s ratification in the Knesset on December 29.

The government initially included 30 ministers, including Netanyahu, just four of whom were women. Additional ministerial positions opened later on, opening the door for more women to join the government. Notable appointments included Ron Dermer, who did not participate in the election, as strategic affairs minister; MK Amir Ohana as Israel’s first gay Knesset speaker; and Netanyahu’s chief negotiator and right-hand man, Yariv Levin, who had also been serving as interim Knesset speaker, as the new justice minister.

IN HIS sixth government’s first meeting, Netanyahu presented its four central goals: blocking Iran’s nuclear program, returning personal safety and sovereignty, treating the high cost of living and housing crisis and broadening the circle of peace in the region.

But this changed days later, on Wednesday, January 4.

Levin, in a prime-time address, announced that the government and coalition were going to begin their term by legislating a series of laws intended to reform the balance of powers between Israel’s three branches of government – and returning the country to what Levin claimed was the proper balance that existed before the High Court of Justice in the 1990s began to take upon itself authorities that were not given to it by law.

Legislation began immediately, with the focal point being the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, led by RZP MK Simcha Rothman.

The makeup and topics of the bills that the committee debated changed as time went on.

The committee began by debating a bill that would downgrade from “binding” to “recommended” decisions made by the attorney-general regarding the cabinet as a whole, and decisions made by every ministry’s legal adviser regarding the legality of the minister’s actions.

The committee then pivoted to debating a bill that would block the High Court from hearing appeals against Basic Laws; then it pivoted once again, to debating limits on the court’s ability to cancel regular laws, as well as the Knesset’s ability to add an “override clause” that would make regular laws immune to judicial review; and then it shifted once again, and began to debate a bill that would give the coalition an automatic majority in the Judicial Selection Committee.

The coalition at first intended to pass all of this by Passover. But it quickly began to hit hurdles. The opposition in the Constitution Committee, most prominently Labor MK Gilad Kariv, did all it could to delay proceedings and draw attention to what it argued was an attempt by Rothman to silence criticism and ignore legitimate concerns. The opposition also consistently filibustered the Knesset plenum in order to create a legislative logjam.

 OPPOSITION MK Gilad Kariv points an accusing finger at Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman. The opposition should be viewed as a loyal opposition and not the enemy, says the writer. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) OPPOSITION MK Gilad Kariv points an accusing finger at Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman. The opposition should be viewed as a loyal opposition and not the enemy, says the writer. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Add to this the wave of protest that began on the Saturday evening after Levin’s announcement. The first Saturday, January 7, featured a demonstration of approximately 30,000 people in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, but on the ensuing Saturday the number grew closer to 100,000. The numbers continued to grow, and the protests continued every Saturday night since. Demonstrations broke out in dozens of other locations in addition to Tel Aviv. They eventually developed into “days of paralysis” at important legislative junctions, and then a “week of paralysis” when the first reform law was expected to pass its final hurdle at the end of March.

The protests were accompanied by a wave of public letters and declarations by many different groups warning against the implications of the reforms. These included hundreds of economists, jurists, academics, health professionals, hi-tech leaders and reservists.

The reforms also drew international pressure. Netanyahu was not invited to Washington, and the Biden administration increasingly began to publicly express its concerns about them. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed their concerns with Netanyahu standing next to them, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did not even consent to make a joint declaration with his Israeli counterpart.

The opposition within the Knesset, in Israel’s streets and at the international level led the coalition to gradually narrow its focus.

On February 6, Levin decided that by Passover it would only pass what is considered the most essential part of the reform – the Immunity of Basic Laws from judicial review, and the new Judicial Selection Committee makeup. It then narrowed its goal even further, so that the only law the coalition said it would pass was the Judicial Selection Committee provision. Finally, on March 18, the coalition introduced a “softened” version of this bill, which would allow the coalition to appoint only two judges unilaterally per term. This, as late as March 23, was intended to pass prior to the Knesset’s recess.

Two other processes developed during February and March: first a slew of law proposals that opponents claimed were intended for the personal gain of Netanyahu and Deri; second, a series of interventions by Herzog.

The “personal” laws included a second “Deri Law,” aimed at barring the High Court from intervening in ministerial appointments, and designed to enable Netanyahu to reappoint Deri after the High Court struck down the appointment; the “Gifts Law,” which would enable the prime minister to receive funding for medical and legal purposes, including the approximately NIS 4 million that was raised via crowdfunding in order to pay his legal fees; and the “Incapacitation Law,” which prevents the attorney-general from declaring a sitting prime minister unfit to serve, and was intended to remove the possibility of Netanyahu being removed for violating a conflict-of-interest agreement that barred him from dealing with any issues that could affect his ongoing corruption trial – including the judicial reforms.

Aside from the “personal” laws, a number of other proposals irked many Israelis. These included laws regarding religion and state, such as the “Hametz Law,” which allows hospital heads to bar leavened bread from entering hospitals during Passover, and a law to broaden the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts; and laws that were harshly criticized by legal authorities, such as a death penalty for terrorists law.

Out of all of the above, only two proposals became law: the Incapacitation Law, on March 23, and the Hametz Law, on March 29. But they wasted a lot of parliamentary time and energy and served as fuel for the demonstrations.

Soon after Levin announced the reforms on January 4, Herzog began a series of meetings behind closed doors with a variety of groups in support of and against the judicial reforms, which eventually developed into a compromise proposal known as the “People’s Directive.” Publicly, other than routine appearances, Herzog made three prime-time “Speeches to the Nation,” in which he gradually sharpened his warnings against the growing unrest and criticized the coalition for pushing forward unilaterally.

During the first speech, on February 12, the president laid out a five-point plan for compromise and urged the coalition and opposition to begin dialogue. This speech came the night before the first votes in the Constitution Committee were scheduled, and a major protest was expected outside of the Knesset.

During his second speech, on March 9, Herzog decried the “nightmare” crisis over the judicial revamp and asserted that the planned legislation undermined democracy.

Finally, on March 15, Herzog presented the details of the “People’s Directive,” and warned of the real, growing threat of civil war if the tension between the reform’s supporters and detractors continued to worsen. The opposition accepted the proposal as a basis for negotiation, but the coalition rejected it out of hand – arguing that it was biased toward the opposition and merely entrenched the existing balance of powers.

Throughout January, February and most of March, neither side budged. The opposition, led by Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid and National Unity chairman MK Benny Gantz, refused to negotiate until Netanyahu announced a legislation freeze, while the coalition pushed ahead while repeatedly calling for talks “without preconditions.”

The tipping point came on Monday, March 27, following a rapid series of events over the weekend. On Saturday evening, March 25, while Netanyahu was in London, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant gave a public statement in which he warned against the dire effect of the first judicial reform bill passing on Israel’s national security, both due to a crumbling of internal solidarity and refusal of IDF reservists in key positions, especially pilots, to cease volunteering for reserve duty.

Some 24 hours later, on Sunday evening, Netanyahu announced that he had decided to remove Gallant. This led to tens of thousands of Israelis angrily taking to the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and elsewhere, and on Monday the Histadrut labor federation launched a general strike, which was quickly joined by many local authorities and businesses, including hi-tech. That evening Netanyahu announced that he was temporarily freezing legislation, and talks at the president’s residence began a day later.

WHAT WERE the coalition and Knesset’s achievements during the winter session?

A total of 29 bills passed their second and third readings and became law during the session. These included a law initiated by 30 MKs from both the coalition and the opposition, to strip terrorists of their Israeli residency or citizenship; a law to raise subsidies on health insurance for disabled IDF veterans; a law that allows police officers to search for illegal weapons without a warrant in certain circumstances; and an amendment to the 2005 Disengagement Law, that enables Israeli citizens to travel to the area in northern Samaria that was evacuated in 2005.

In addition, a long of list of bills passed their first reading and will continue to progress once the Knesset beings its summer session. Chief among them are a number of bills related to the budget for 2023 and 2024, which must pass into law by May 29 and is progressing on schedule.

Besides legislation, the Knesset’s various committees also held countless debates and conferences on nearly every issue one can think of, intended to fill the second of its two central roles – oversight of the government.

But during the Knesset’s winter session, the judicial reform was by far the issue that engulfed the coalition, opposition, Israeli public, media and many other sectors, and the outcome of the negotiations at the President’s Residence is likely to correlate what the summer session will look like.

Should the talks break down, the coalition is likely to pick up where it left off before the recess. The Knesset will be consumed by fierce legislative battles over every section of every bill connected to the judicial reforms, and this could continue throughout the entire session.

A partial agreement between coalition and opposition means that the summer session will begin with legislation of the agreed upon provisions. Although this will pass relatively quickly since both sides agreed, it would start the session on the right foot and slightly soften the battles that could resume soon after.

In a third, albeit unlikely scenario, the talks could lead to a breakthrough and wide consensus, in which case the sides will likely continue to work together in the coming months in order to come up with a viable constitutional framework. This would free the Knesset to focus on the issues that relate to many Israelis every day – the high cost of living, security, health, education and more.