Knesset passes controversial bills amid criticism of an 'assault on Israeli democracy'
Two bills, expected to strengthen the right's influence in the judicial system, pass first readings; critics slam bills as 'draconian' and 'anti-democratic.'
The Knesset approved on Monday evening a bill proposing to abolish the rule that a justice cannot be appointed Supreme Court president unless he is at least three years short of the mandatory retirement age of 70. The bill would pave Justice Asher Grunis' way to becoming Supreme Court president. 52 MKs voted in favor, 35 voted against the bill.
Grunis is seen as a conservative judge who mostly refrains from intervening in decisions made by the executive and legislative branches, and is thus popular with right-wing politicians. But when Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch retires at the end of February 2012, Grunis will be five weeks short of three years from retirement.
Another bill, dubbed 'the Sohlberg bill,' and is sponsored by MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu ) was also approved. The bill would change the way the Israel Bar Association's two representatives on the Judicial Appointments Committee are selected. Currently, the bar's national council picks both; the bill would require one to be the bar chairman and the other a member of the bar's internal opposition.
The bill paves the way for Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg to sitting on Israel's highest tribunal of justice. Sohlberg, who lives in the settlement of Alon Shvut, has in the past been criticized for rulings thought to infringe freedom of the press.
MKs from both the opposition and the governing coalition voiced strong criticism of the proposed laws, saying they are draconian and anti-democratic.
"We will fight Netanyahu's draconian laws," said Kadima chairwoman and opposition leader Tzipi Livni. "This is an attempt to turn Israel into a dark… dictatorship." Livni added: "Every government minister, even if he or she opposes the laws, is part of a system that is silencing the citizens. This is not a matter of an opposition to the government; there must be a front that expresses the sane and balanced voice."
Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich said, "We are under a combined attack on Israeli democracy. Netanyahu cannot hide behind Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin. Without his support their crazy bills would not have passed."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, "It's important to defend the Supreme Court… any interference that weakens the Supreme Court weakens democracy."