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PM aide: We’ll pass Judicial Selection Committee shakeup, shelve rest of overhaul

A top aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that the coalition plans to pass legislation remaking the Judicial Selection Committee in the fall parliamentary session and then will shelve the remainder of its controversial judicial overhaul package.

Cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs echoed the message reportedly given by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to US President Joe Biden last month on the eve of the Knesset vote to pass the first piece of overhaul legislation — a law barring the courts from using the reasonableness yardstick when adjudicating government decisions.

Netanyahu told Biden that while he wasn’t able to secure consensus support for that first law, as initially promised, he would work to whip such backing for the legislation to remake the Judicial Selection Committee in the months that followed.

Fuchs asserted Wednesday in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha magazine that the government would seek a compromise with the 0pposition on a new makeup of the judicial appointments panel. However, if it does not succeed in bringing the Opposition on board, Fuchs said it will simply restructure the committee so that half of its representatives would be from the coalition and half of its members would be from the opposition.

The current makeup of the panel features three High Court of Justice judges, two representatives from the Israel Bar Association, two representatives from the government and two representatives from the Knesset, with one of those traditionally being from the coalition and the other from the opposition.

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When he first introduced the judicial overhaul, Justice Minister Yariv Levin proposed giving the government control over the panel. The initiative was arguably the most controversial from the package, with critics warning that it would allow the government, which already effectively controls the Knesset, to also control the judiciary.

Cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his interview with Mishpacha, Fuchs cited consistent polling showing that 78% of the public supports splitting the spots of the Judicial Selection Committee evenly between the coalition and opposition. It was not clear what surveys he was referring to.

“Explain to me how [anti-overhaul protest leaders] can convince the public that something is not democratic when you have an equal balance on the committee between the coalition and the opposition,” Fuchs posited.

Also in the interview, Fuchs said that new legislation to be advanced by the coalition in the coming months will lower the age at which Haredi yeshiva students can enter the workforce without fear of conscription from 26 to 21 or 22.

The change revealed by Fuchs went even further than a recent decision approved by ministers, which said they would pass legislation lowering the exemption age from 26 to 23.

At present, tens of thousands of Haredi men either avoid working or work off the books amid fear of being drafted and losing special government stipends paid out to exempted yeshiva students younger than 26.

The initiative is likely to anger many secular Israelis seeking greater participation by army-age Haredi men in national service. Lowering the exemption age is seen by many secular Israelis as rewarding their skirting of military service by enabling them to enter the job market at around the same age as their serving peers.

Construction and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf arrives outside the home of Shas leader Aryeh Deri in Jerusalem on January 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lowering the exemption age all the way to 21 is also likely to prompt opposition from some haredi politicians, who fear this would incentivize young men to cut short their study of scripture at yeshiva in favor of the job market.

It’s possible though that Fuchs was merely setting Netanyahu’s opening offer in what will be an ongoing negotiation with the Haredi parties regarding the enlistment exemption age.

While Haredi parties are willing to hold discussions regarding the issue of age, the ultra-Orthodox Kikar Hashabat news site reported Thursday that the leaders of Shas and United Torah Judaism will not expect another delay in the legislation. Aryeh Deri and Yitzhak Goldknopf are warning behind closed doors that they will bring down the government if the coalition moves to delay the bill again, according to the report.

Fuchs in the Mishpacha interview committed to passing the Haredi draft bill in the upcoming parliamentary session, but did not specify when. Deri and Goldknopf reportedly want the legislation finalized at the beginning of the session.