israels government speeds judicial overhaul despite defense ministers plea

Lawmakers worked at a frenzied pace to finalize the text of a proposal that would give the government greater control over the selection of Supreme Court judges.

Israel’s far-right governing coalition sped up its efforts on Sunday to enact the first part of its contentious judicial overhaul, despite a plea from the country’s defense minister to delay the bill because the turmoil caused by the plan had threatened the country’s national security.

In chaotic scenes in Parliament, lawmakers raced to finalize the text of a proposed law that the coalition hopes to present for a final vote early this week. The measure would give the government greater control over the selection of Supreme Court judges.

Behind the scenes, government leaders were also scrambling to ensure they had enough votes in Parliament to pass the law. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to meet coalition leaders on Sunday afternoon, after at least two coalition members backed the call by the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, to halt the process. If a third followed suit, the government could lose its majority.

If enacted, the law would complete the first step of a plan to limit judicial influence that has divided Israeli society, prompted mass protests and provoked unease among investors, the Jewish diaspora and the Biden administration.

The plan has also set off unrest in the military: So many reservists have threatened to stand down from duty if the law goes ahead that the leaders of the Israel Defense Forces have warned of a threat to operational capacity, prompting the overnight statement from Mr. Gallant.

But despite that concern, coalition lawmakers on the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the body in Parliament tasked with preparing the law’s text, used their majority on the committee on Sunday to hurtle through hundreds of objections raised by opposition lawmakers.

A protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday against plans by Mr. Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.Oren Alon/Reuters

Mr. Netanyahu’s government is determined to pass the law this week, before Parliament breaks for a monthlong recess.

That insistence led to pandemonium in the constitution committee on Sunday, as the chairman, Simcha Rothman, often allowed just seconds for the panel’s members to consider each of several hundred opposition objections before voting on them.

Mr. Rothman proceeded so quickly, and the meeting descended so often into uproar, that it was often hard for lawmakers to follow what was being discussed. Most of the opposition lawmakers on the committee were temporarily expelled by Mr. Rothman for disrupting the process before later being readmitted.

“Can you behave yourself like a human being for once?” Karine Elharrar, an opposition lawmaker, said to Mr. Rothman during a particularly bitter exchange.

“I can learn from you how to behave like human beings,” Mr. Rothman replied, sarcastically.

Earlier, Ms. Elharrar had told coalition lawmakers on the committee: “You’re just like the Minions,” referring to the movie franchise.

She added later: “You don’t even know what you are voting on.”

The government and its supporters say the change is necessary to make the court more representative of the diversity of Israeli society, and to give elected lawmakers primacy over unelected judges.

Critics say the move would give the government too much power over the judiciary, removing one of the few checks on government wrongdoing, and perhaps lead to authoritarian rule.

The overhaul has become a proxy for much deeper social disagreements within Israeli society, related to the relationship between religion and state, the future of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and ethnic tensions among Israeli Jews.

Orthodox Jews and settlers say the court has historically acted against their interests, and has for too long been dominated by secular judges. Jews of Middle Eastern descent also feel underrepresented on the court, which has mostly been staffed by judges from European backgrounds.

Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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