Judicial Selection Committee emerging as Israel's next political battle

Judicial reform negotiations are set to resume as the June 15 deadline to form the Judicial Selection Committee nears.

 MK Simcha Rotman, Head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee seen during a committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem on May 29, 2023.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MK Simcha Rotman, Head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee seen during a committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem on May 29, 2023.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Opposition leader and Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid, National Unity leader MK Benny Gantz and Labor leader MK Merav Michaeli faced off on Monday over which opposition MK will serve as a member of the nine-member Judicial Selection Committee, as the June 15 deadline to form the committee nears.

The committee elects judges for Israel's entire court system, including for the High Court of Justice. The makeup of the committee is one of the most contested issues between the coalition and opposition in negotiations over the government's judicial reforms, which are taking place at the President's Residence. The coalition wishes to give itself a majority in the committee and thus control judicial appointments, while the opposition claims that this will politicize the courts and harm the judicial system.

The coalition postponed the initial deadline to form the Judicial Selection Committee back in March, but it chose not to postpone it again, meaning that the committee must form by June 15. Assuming agreements over a new makeup will not be reached by then, the committee will form based on the current law – and will include three High Court justices (one of whom must be the Chief Justice), two ministers (one of whom must be the justice minister), two Knesset members and two members of the Israel Bar Association. One each of the justices, Knesset members, ministers and Bar Association members must be a woman.

The coalition traditionally enables the opposition to fill one of the two Knesset spots in the committee, but coalition members threatened in recent weeks that if no agreements are announced over the judicial reforms by the time the vote is held, it will use its majority in the Knesset to break this tradition and grant itself both of the Knesset's spots on the committee. Members of the opposition's negotiating teams threatened in response that if the coalition does this, they will leave the negotiations at the President's Residence.

The spat between the opposition parties began on Monday morning when Yesh Atid called on National Unity to support its candidate for the committee, former energy minister MK Karin Elharrar.

 The Law Committee votes on changes to the Judicial Selection Committee. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Law Committee votes on changes to the Judicial Selection Committee. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

"The opposition cannot destroy itself again," Lapid said. "I call on the members of the opposition not to divide the votes and stand behind Karin Elharrar as our representative on the Judicial Selection Committee. It is unthinkable that we will give to [Justice Minister Yariv] Levin and [Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chair MK Simcha] Rothman such a gift and divide the vote," he said.

Announcements from opposition leaders

National Unity put out a response in the name of an "official".

"Lapid is trying to tie the horses before the carriage, and is endangering the big move that we worked on at the President's Residence," the official said.

"According to the agreement that was forming, the coalition would put up for a vote only one candidate, and hold the vote on schedule on June 14. The Knesset Speaker has not yet announced the date of the election nor the final day to put forward candidates in order fulfill the agreements, but Lapid found it necessary to 'steal horses' and announce his candidate without coordinating with the rest of the opposition, all while the election on June 14 is not certain," the official said.

"This is a magnificent own-goal against the efforts we have been investing for weeks, and is a prize for the coalition. We recommend to him [Lapid] and to us all to focus our efforts on what is important – to ensure that a date is set, and to ensure that the coalition puts forward one candidate, as was agreed, so that the opposition's representation will be assured," the official concluded.

Gantz added later on Monday in a press conference ahead of National Unity's weekly meeting, that his party had not yet made a decision about whether or not it would propose its own candidate. However, Gantz stressed that the opposition still has not received proof that the coalition will give it a spot on the committee – and repeated his threat that if the coalition decides to occupy both spots on the Judicial Selection Committee, his party will leave the negotiations.

"We will not hold talks at the President's Residence while the legislature is advancing a coup d'etat," he said.

Gantz also stressed that there will not be any agreements with the coalition on the judicial reforms without a "guaranteed and clear promise that there will be no more legislation" on disputed issues without broad agreement.

A source in Likud confirmed on Monday that the negotiations teams from the coalition and opposition will resume talks at the President's Residence on Tuesday after a brief hiatus due to marathon budget debating and voting last week.

Labor also weighed in on the argument over the Judicial Selection Committee on Monday. Labor MK Efrat Rayten announced to the press ahead of her party's weekly meeting that she would put forward her name as a candidate for the Judicial Selection Committee. Party leader MK Merav Michaeli then called on fellow opposition party leaders to meet and reach a joint agreement over the opposition's lead candidate.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman criticized both Lapid and Gantz in a press conference prior to his party's weekly meeting on Monday. Liberman argued that delaying the judicial reform would damage the economy, as it would lead to a prolonged period of uncertainty. The talks were a "mistake", and Gantz and Lapid should exit them immediately, he added.

According to law, the Knesset members in the Judicial Selection Committee are chosen in a confidential vote. The Knesset Speaker must announce the vote two weeks in advance. This means that if the vote will be held on June 14, the Speaker (Likud MK Amir Ohana) will need to announce it by this Wednesday. In addition, if the vote is indeed scheduled for June 14, Knesset members will have until June 7 to file their candidacy.

Therefore, by June 7 the opposition should know the coalition's intentions. If the coalition puts forward just one candidate, the second candidate will necessarily come from the opposition. But if the coalition puts forward two candidates, then it likely means that it intends to appoint both to the committee, and leave out the opposition.

However, since the vote is confidential, the coalition cannot ensure ahead of time that it will succeed in doing this.

According to the coalition agreement between the Likud and Otzma Yehudit, the latter will receive a slot on the committee. Since the second minister on the committee must be a woman (the first automatically being Levin), and Otzma Yehudit's three ministers are all men, the representative will likely come from the Knesset. This means that if the coalition puts forward one candidate, it will likely come from Otzma Yehudit.

The Israel Bar Association representatives are unknown, as the association is in the midst of an election for its new chairperson.

Even assuming that the Judicial Selection Committee is formed on time, the law says that the committee only convenes at the justice minister's behest. Levin could refrain from convening the committee so as to enable himself to argue later on that it had not begun its work and therefore its makeup can still be changed, according to a source in the Likud.

Two High Court justices, including Chief Justice Esther Hayut and Justice Anat Baron, are scheduled to retire in October. A delay in convening the committee could lead to a delay in appointing new justices to replace them on the 15-member court.