Spurning President’s appeal, judicial reform bill passes first vote, massive protests continue

Despite President Yaakov Herzog’s warning of “societal collapse,” the government’s judicial overhaul bill was passed on Monday, Feb. 13 by the Knesset Law Committee led by Chairman Simha Rotman, while unprecedently huge protests countrywide rampaged in their sixth week charging that democracy was at stake.

In an impassioned address to the nation Sunday night, President Yaakov Herzog, appealed for dialogue and restraint against violence before the blazing dispute tore the country apart and “brother raised hand against brother.” For the sake of calm, he appealed to the government not to bring planned legislation to a first reading amid the current divisive background. “First weigh “the principles I set out today as a basis for discussion,” he implored.

Monday morning, after the Netanyahu coalition rejected any delays, the committee nonetheless voted on hotly disputed sections of the reform: the restructuring of the selection of judges panel to afford the government a majority, and a law restricting the High Court’s oversight of anti-constitutional laws. The government agreed only to wait a week before bringing some of the bills to the plenum for a first reading and debate.

Opposition lawmakers banged on their desks and shouted “Shame!” or climbed on their desks singing “We have no other country,” as parliament descended into chaos. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that Herzog’s offer was “proper.” Until the coalition accepts it, he said, “the fight will not stop, the protest will not stop.”

Behind the clamor, the president allowed that the legal and judicial system was badly in need of radical changes. He drew on his own legal background to set out the five principles which he found most necessary for improving the system and as the basis for a general agreement between the contesting views.

It is imperative, he urged in his first principle, to legislate a new quasi-constitutional Basic Law: Legislation to clearly lay out the status of all legislation — ordinary laws and Basic Laws, all of which would be passed by “broad parliamentary consensus” and four readings, instead of the standard three. Basic Laws enacted by this process would be immune to High Court oversight. However, the High Court’s right to judicial oversight over non-basic laws would be protected. This Basic Law would set out the terms by which the Knesset may override court decisions to strike down ordinary laws “by means of a majority and process determined in dialogue and consent.”

His second principle would ease the burden on judges and so save Israelis pursuing justice from long, agonizing delays.

The third principle calls for streamlining the creaking judicial system and ending the endless delays and suffering that have long sapped public confidence in the justice system.

The second and third principles advanced by the president are not included in the government’s judicial overhaul program.

Fourth principle: He called for the Judicial Selection Committee to be reconfigured so that no side has an automatic majority, so that all three branches of government have equal representation on the panel, alongside public figures who will be appointed “with coordination and agreement” between the justice minister and the Supreme Court President.

Finally, he warned that the judicial doctrine of “reasonableness” can be abused by the courts if not limited, while stressing that there is still a place for it “in cases of extreme unreasonableness,” as is currently the case.

Herzog said his five principles presented the “basis for an agreement” and appealed to Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and lawmaker Simha Rothman, to quench the raging flames of dissent by negotiation for a common formula on the basis of those five principles.

The president had his answer the next day from the Knesset Law Committee and the gigantic crowds waving a sea of national flags gathering outside the House and blocking roads across the country.

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