As the judicial reforms stall, Bibi lines up his fall-guy

Netanyahu would like to see a more conservative Supreme Court, but he doesn’t share justice minister Yariv Levin’s burning desire to make it the government’s chief priority


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Israeli Minister of Justice Yariv Levin during a government conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on May 28, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** éùéáú îîùìä áéáé áðéîéï ðúðéäå øàù äîîùìä éøéá ìåéï

June 01, 2023 13:10

June 14 may be the most fateful date in the calendar of the 25th Knesset. This is the date set by Speaker Amir Ohana for the election of the Knesset’s representatives to the Judicial Appointments Committee.

The election is taking place six months after the Knesset’s inauguration, with hundreds of judges’ positions to fill at all levels, and most crucially, to seats about to become vacant on the Supreme Court, including that of the president.

The speaker, a prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu loyalist, would have tried to delay the election of the Knesset’s two representatives on the 11-member committee if the prime minister was still planning to go along with his justice minister Yariv Levin’s plans to try and change the make-up of the committee, giving the coalition full control over the appointments process.

In a Likud faction meeting last Monday, Netanyahu told his MKs that “the reform is not dead”, but Speaker Ohana’s announcement says it all.

The committee will be empanelled as in the past. Levin, as the minister in charge, can still try and delay its next session, until he reaches an agreement with the outgoing Supreme Court president on the appointment of new judges to his liking, but they are unlikely to agree and he has clearly lost the prime minister’s backing.

Sources close to Netanyahu confirmed this week that he wants to continue with the constitutional negotiations with the opposition, under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, and that at most a few minor changes may be passed during the current Knesset session. He certainly doesn’t want the protests over his judicial overhaul to overshadow more months of his term, as they did all through the winter.

And while in principle he would like to see a more conservative Supreme Court, he doesn’t share Levin’s burning desire to make it the government’s chief priority.

But even if an interim agreement is reached with the opposition on the committee membership, which now looks increasingly likely (that is, if the opposition parties can agree between themselves on their representative, which is less clear), there are still two major obstacles the prime minister needs to cross before he can consign the constitutional reform to the back-burner.

The first is the promise he made in the coalition agreement with Jewish Power that one of its MKs will represent the coalition on the committee.

The prime minister would dearly love to get out of that deal, as he knows that whoever Jewish Power send to the committee will cause a ruckus.

But party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir is unlikely to give up easily, especially as he has already been sidelined by the prime minister from most high-level security briefings, despite his own title as national security minister. And then there is the increasingly resentful Levin.

He has gone in a couple of short months from being regarded as the most influential of Likud’s ministers and a possible future party leader to the fall-guy for the failure of the government’s key policy and the reason for the coalition’s plummet in the polls.

There is some justification to this. Levin made no attempt to prepare public opinion for the sweeping reforms he rushed out or to try and sell the plan once it began to run into furious opposition on multiple fronts. At the same time, he had the support of the prime minister and the entire coalition in doing this. No one raised any warning or reservations. Until it was too late.

Netanyahu won’t fire him. That would be an admission of failure on his side as well. But the resignation of the justice minister, which not long ago looked like a move that could shatter the coalition, may no longer be so earth-shattering.

There's another landmark date this month on Israel’s legal calendar. June 25 will be special in that proceedings will be held simultaneously in Jerusalem and London.

Arnon Milchan, the Israeli Hollywood mogul and key prosecution witness, will take the stand to testify on the allegedly illegal gifts he and his associate, Australian media tycoon James Packer, showered on Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu.

Milchan refuses to come to Israel. Whether for fear of arrest or harassment by those who could be affected by his testimony, he has not been back in the country of his birth for five years. He didn’t even attend his mother’s funeral in 2021.

He spends his time between his homes in the US and Britain, and the court has agreed for him to testify in London, in the presence of the lawyers for the prosecution and defence, while the judges remain in the District Court in Jerusalem.

This is not so out of the ordinary nowadays. Video-conferencing is now frequently used around the world when there’s a difficulty in bringing a witness to court.

What is less orthodox is the request by the defence that Mrs Netanyahu be allowed to be present in London when Milchan takes the stand.

The reason given is that, while she is not a defendant, much of his testimony is expected to be in regard to their personal dealings, and her presence is necessary for her husband’s defence (the prime minister is expected to be present in the courtroom in Jerusalem).

The judges granted the defence’s request, but this has opened up the way for other parties, including the Israeli media, to demand they be allowed in as well.

The proceedings were scheduled to be held in the Israeli embassy in Kensington, but there is no room in the building, which can hold more than those already on the long list of legal teams, court officials, camera crew, security officers, Milchan and Mrs Netanyahu.

If reporters are to be there, it will mean hiring a larger venue for the ten days of testimony currently scheduled and the unedifying scene of a three-ring Israeli and almost certainly also British media circus somewhere in London.

Rabbinic ruling
AS THIS column is being written, an estimated 100,000 Charedi men are travelling back home from the funeral of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who died on Sunday morning, just a couple of weeks after turning 100. For nearly 80 years, Rabbi Edelstein was a student, teacher, rabbi and rosh yeshivah (dean) at Bnei Brak’s Ponevezh Yeshivah.

For the last year of his life, since the death in 2022 of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, he was briefly recognised by the Lithuanian-Charedi stream as the gdol ha’dor, the greatest of the generation, which made him very briefly the most influential rabbi in Israel.

During his 13 months as supreme spiritual leader, Rabbi Edelstein made one major decision.

He threatened that if the large Chasidic court of Belz went ahead with its plan to join a government scheme to teach more general studies in its schools, in return for increased government funding, the Lithuanian and Chasidic factions of United Torah Judaism would not run in a joint list in the last election.

To prevent his key coalition allies from falling beneath the electoral threshold, Netanyahu promised that if he won the election, all Charedi schools would receive higher funding, regardless of their curriculum. Belz backed down, Netanyahu won and last week he fulfilled his promise in the new state budget.

As Rabbi Edelstein was being laid to rest, the head of the budget department in Israel’s finance ministry, Yoav Gardus, warned at a conference in Jerusalem: “When my grandchild goes to a state school, he will be in a minority.

"By that year, 50 per cent of Israeli children will study in Charedi schools and only five per cent of them will have a bagrut (Israel’s equivalent of GCSEs). This is a problem which won’t solve itself.” Something for the next gdol ha’dor, who has yet to be announced, to think about.

June 01, 2023 13:10

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