Bowing to pressure from both the Right and the Left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau instructed the Justice Ministry to shelve a controversial piece of legislation that would have changed the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee, just days before a final vote was set to occur in the Knesset.
If approved, the amendment would have in effect disqualified the newly elected Israel Bar Association representatives to the committee, and forced the organization to pick new individuals in their place, a mere month after their appointment. The Judicial Selection Committee comprises representatives from the judicial, executive and legislative branches, as well as two attorneys from the private sector chosen by the bar association. The committee is the sole body that confirms Supreme Court judges and other judicial appointees, and has been the source of much debate, in light of new legislation aimed at changing its composition and altering the judicial selection process.
The current language of the amendment to the Israel Bar Association Law, first introduced in November but since revised, would have association members check only one name on the ballot, instead of two. The two candidates garnering the most votes would be appointed to the committee. Critics say the bill is heavily tilted toward the current government as it gives the association’s President, attorney Doron Barzilai, significant sway over the identity of the eventual appointee. Barzilai is a close associate of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman (who also serves on the committee).
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Citing the need for further review, Netanyahu instructed Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to scrutinize the various provisions of the amendment before it goes up for a vote in the Knesset. The decision comes a day after a Knesset panel voted to send the amendment to the Knesset plenum for final passage next week, which led to a public outcry over undue government influence over the judicial branch and even prompted Weinstein to warn lawmakers that the amendment's provisions might not hold up in court as they appeared to be unconstitutional. The High Court of Justice has repeatedly warned lawmakers of an over-reach that would tilt the judicial selection panel in favor of one branch of government.
Criticism over the Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee's decision to send the amendment to the Knesset plenum transcended party lines, with both coalition and opposition members, including Likud MKs, attacking it. Likud cabinet ministers Dan Meridor, Benny Binyamin Begin, Limor Livnat and Gideon Sa'ar lashed out against the sponsors of the bill, MK Yariv Levin (Likud) and Coalition Chairman MK Zeev Elkin, demanding that the committee hold another hearing on the amendment. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said his party, Independence, would also oppose the bill.
Netanyahu, who initially supported the measure but vowed to reconsider in light of the strong opposition, finally said Wednesday that he would shelve the coalition-sponsored legislation.
A disappointed Levin said Wednesday that while he respects the prime minister's verdict he will nonetheless champion the causes outlined in the amendment he had sponsored, so that "we put an end to Israel's distorted judge selection mechanism."
"Shelving the amendment is uncalled for and is tantamount to a farewell present to Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch by effectively granting the judges total control over the judicial appointment process up and down the entire judiciary," Elkin added.
MK Einat Wilf (independence), welcomed Netanyahu's decision, saying, "The faction will continue to stand firm against any attempt to encroach on the High Court of Justice and its independence."
She added, "Every so often we see that on such matters we have important allies in the Likud and the coalition, which allow us to successfully thwart dangerous legislation before it is written into law in a concerted, determined effort."
A Kadima spokesperson echoed Wilf's comments Wednesday, saying, "Netanyahu waved a white flag of surrender when he realized that his true intentions had been revealed, and that even Yankaleh [presumably Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman] would not be able to serve as a fig leaf to his dangerous plan to politically manipulate the judge selection process."
The prime minister's decision came at the end of a turbulent day in the Knesset hallways. MK David Rotem, who heads the Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee that handles all legislation before it is sent for a vote in the Knesset plenum, turned down a request for another hearing on the amendment, in light of pressure by fellow right-wing lawmakers, including the coalition chairman himself. MK Carmel Shama Hacohen (Likud), who motioned to send the amendment back to the committee for further deliberations and had even garnered the six signatures of committee members necessary to force such a hearing, was rebuffed by Rotem, who said Knesset rules do not stipulate an exact time frame for convening the special committee session.
"I am the landlord in the committee and no one can dictate when I have to convene it," Rotem said in defense of his decision, adding that he can choose to convene it "in a week or even two weeks."
Infuriated by Rotem's stonewalling, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) announced Wednesday that he would use his powers to prevent a plenum vote on the amendment as long as the necessary third of the committee -- six members -- were not granted their wish and another hearing was held.
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