PM Freezes Judicial Postings Bill Amid Wave of Criticism

Netanyahu says he is reviewing the matter further; political sources say bill may be scrapped.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday suspended the bill aimed at strengthening the right wing in the Judicial Appointments Committee, following a slew of criticism not only from the left but among his own party's ministers and Knesset members.

After a turbulent day in the Knesset and following a tete-a-tete with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who castigated the bill, Netanyahu said he was freezing the legislation in order to review the matter further. Political sources say the bill may be scrapped.

The bill, submitted to the Knesset for second reading on Wednesday, would have lead to ousting members of the committee who are associated with Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, to strengthen the weight of the rightist members. The bill would also oust the secular representative in the religious judges appointments committee, with the intention of replacing him with a representative of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, political sources said.

Earlier on Wednesday the legislation reached a dead end when the opposition forced the Knesset's Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, which had already approved the bill for second and third reading, to reopen the debate on it.

The committee succumbed after MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) signed a third of the committees' members on a request to reopen the debate, including MKs Carmel Shama-Hacohen (Likud ), who stood in for committee chair David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ).

Before this development, Shama-Hacohen asked Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to reopen the Knesset debate on the bill. "It would be good to stop and think," Shama-Hacohen said. "This time it is even imperative. We cannot remain indifferent to the criticism."

Rivlin agreed, angering coalition whip Zeev Elkin, one of the bill's sponsors. Elkin asked committee chair Rotem to sabotage the move, leading him to cancel the renewed debate in the committee. At this point, Plesner started to collect committee members' signatures to reopen the debate.

"Kadima will not let Netanyahu get away with this anti-democratic bill and will insist the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convenes to revoke it," said Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni.

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who is seen as one of the bill's architects, said in the Knesset on Wednesday that he refuses to take part in the debate due to an apparent conflict of interests.

"I don't want to express my position about the committee's composition, when I have to discuss the judicial appointments to the Supreme Court as chairman of the committee," he said.

"I also want to emphasize how careful I am to keep my position to myself and not to reveal it beforehand," he said.

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ), one of the bill's main opponents, said he was "astonished at Neeman's response, since he had cast the deciding vote in the ministers' meeting that decided to support the bill."

"If he had a conflict of interests preventing him from getting involved, he shouldn't have voted. The justice minister cannot stand on the sidelines and say he can't get involved," Khenin said.

After Netanyahu said he was freezing the bill, the Knesset House Committee chairman MK Yariv Levin, also one of the bill's sponsors, said: "This is an unjustified retirement gift to the Supreme Court president. It gives the judges complete control over all the judicial appointments. I respect the prime minister's decision, but will continue to fight for my positions to end the distorted judicial appointment system."

Netanyahu's about turn in deciding to freeze the bill characterizes his behavior when it comes to controversial issues. Since forming the cabinet, Netanyahu has zigzagged more than 20 times in making major decisions.

At the beginning of his term he reneged on his intention to charge VAT on fruit and vegetables. About six weeks ago he scrapped the bill requiring judicial Supreme Court candidates to be vetted by the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, although the legislation had reached an advanced stage. He also suspended the bill to prevent foreign contributions from leftist organizations, following the attorney general's criticism.