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Israel prepares for vote related to controversial judicial reform plan

Knesset to elect two members to judges selection committee, with hardliners in ruling coalition pushing to pick both members

Israel prepares for vote related to controversial judicial reform plan

Israeli politics is once again reaching a fever pitch before a crucial vote related to the government’s controversial proposals to overhaul the judiciary.

The Knesset will convene on Wednesday to elect two representatives to Israel’s judicial selection committee – the composition of which is at the heart of the now six-month-old battle over the future of Israeli democracy.

Two of the nine members of the panel, which appoints judges, are political appointments. Historically, one has been chosen by the government and one by the opposition.

The opposition has put forward the centre-left Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharar as a candidate, but several hardliners in the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition have demanded that both positions are filled with their own representatives.

Whether the status quo will be maintained is expected to indicate how much appetite Netanyahu has to push on with the bitterly contested judicial changes package. He has sent mixed signals over the overhaul’s future, but it remains a central goal for his far-right partners and some members of his Likud party: abandoning it could threaten his coalition.

Netanyahu returned to office in late December at the head of the most rightwing government in Israeli history, and his justice minister soon announced the wide-ranging judicial overhaul aimed at curbing the outsized power of the supreme court and its perceived leftwing bias. The measures could also help Netanyahu evade prosecution in his corruption trial, in which he denies all charges.

Critics counter that the measures will erase democratic norms, handing politicians too much power by allowing a simple majority in the Knesset to overrule almost all of the court’s decisions, and politicise the judiciary by adding more parliamentarians, or MKs, to the judicial selection committee.

News of the proposals damaged Israel’s economy and inflamed tensions with international allies worried about the country’s democratic health, as well as sparking the country’s largest-ever protest movement, including unexpected pressure from the tech sector and military reservists.

The debate reached a climax in late March when Netanyahu fired his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, over his objections to the changes: wildcat strikes in response brought the country to a standstill, leading the prime minister to announce that the legislation would be delayed until the summer parliamentary session.

Israel’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, has since brokered halting compromise talks between the government and the opposition, but the negotiations have yielded little in the way of concrete solutions. Gadi Eizenkot, an opposition lawmaker, told Army Radio on Tuesday that if no opposition representative was elected to the judges selection committee, talks would be terminated.

Netanyahu has kept his thoughts on Wednesday’s vote to himself, and despite intense opposition lobbying of unconvinced coalition members it is still not clear which way the vote will go. The prime minister told the Likud party last week that “the reform is not dead, but we are making every effort in talks in order to reach broad agreements”.

One potential deal floated in the Hebrew media this week would see Elharar, the opposition candidate, appointed to the judicial selection committee, in exchange for opposition support for the reinstatement of the influential Ultra-Orthodox politician Aryeh Deri as a cabinet minister.

The supreme court ruled that Deri could not serve as a minister in January, shortly after the coalition entered office, because of a previous conviction for tax offences. The affair deepened the rift over the power of Israel’s courts.

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