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'Supreme Rulers?' Committee chairman bashes high court, assures foreign media that judicial reform will expand Israeli democracy

In first English-language press conference, Knesset Member Simcha Rothman takes on criticism of proposed judicial reform, which has sparked mass protests and a high-tech bleed

MK Simcha Rotman, head of the Constitution Committee leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, on Jan. 29, 2023. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

JERUSALEM—The chairman of the Israeli parliament’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee made a vigorous defense of the government’s proposed legal reforms, countering what he calls “fake news and misinformation” that has characterized the legislation as an end to democracy in Israel.

In fact, Knesset Member Simcha Rothman argued that the system, as it is now, is undemocratic with unbalanced power resting within the judiciary rather than with the elected officials in the Knesset.

“Israel is the only democratic country in the world that sitting justices have voting power on who will sit on the court,” Rothman said, calling the Supreme Court a self-appointing body. “That’s why the distance between the public in Israel and the court – it's an ever-growing distance.”

In his first news conference in English on the topic, Rothman – of the Religious Zionism party – said it was necessary to address the issue since it has bloomed from a domestic issue to a sticking point in international relations. Reform was one of the first topics that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed in his visit to Israel earlier this week.

The judicial reform proposal has also rallied tens of thousands of Israelis heading to protests and objections from the present Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, as well as former chief judges.

In addition, hundreds of high-tech workers are protesting the proposals and three companies have already pulled their investments out of Israel for fear of a controlled economy.

But Rothman, speaking at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said the opposite is true.

“We believe in freedom, freedom of speech, I’m a free market kind of a guy,” he said. “I’m not looking to create my own broadcasting organization. I don’t want to take control of academia. When the right is in power, we are giving away power to the public.”

Rothman has been a student of judicial reform for years now and authored two books on the subject, including one titled, “Supreme Rulers.” He said that the lack of "government by the people" – but instead in the hands of the Supreme Court – is what created the problems Israel faces today.

The proposed reforms – currently being debated in Rothman’s Knesset committee – will change the system of judicial appointment, broadening the committee to include three government ministers, two Knesset members from the coalition, one from the opposition and another three from the judiciary branch. In this way, the majority of the committee will be elected officials, Rothman explained.

Critics maintain that the majority of these elected officials, however, would still be part of the coalition, giving the government a direct say in judicial matters.

Another reform would be canceling the ability to overrule a Basic Law, which is what Israel uses in place of a constitution. The Knesset would be able to override such court rulings with a simple majority.

And lastly, the power of the attorney general would be greatly reduced.

“I’m a little bit insulted for the State of Israel that we have to legislate this third part,” he said.

He said that the policies of “the almighty chief legal advisor” should not be binding nor should they rise above the authority of the prime minister. Israel is the only country in the world where the attorney general – who is unelected – has more power than any leader of a democratic country, Rothman said.

“Israel is the only country in the world that has the position like the chief legal advisor that is so powerful,” he said. “Israel is the only country in the world where the chief legal advisor’s decision is binding. Israel is the only country in the world where you have the monopoly on representation on the courts and can decide the position it represents and disallows people to come and present their position. Israel is the only country in the world that can cancel their laws without a constitution.”

He also noted the number of cases the Israeli Supreme Court handles compared to other nations. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court handles a few hundred cases annually but, in the Jewish state, because anyone is allowed to bring their case directly to the Israeli Supreme Court, some 10,000 cases are brought before the court each year.

Rothman cited another example that he said begs for judicial reform: The case of the parliamentary immunity granted to former Knesset Member Azmi Bishara who was “actively supporting acts of terror.” Bishara, Rothman said, used that immunity to flee Israel and escape treason charges. Bishara was accused of passing along data to Hezbollah regarding Israeli targets. The court ruling overturned a large majority of the 120-member Knesset which voted against his immunity. Rothman said the number was between 80 to 90.

Nicole Jansezian was the news editor and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS.

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