Meet the Knesset member at the forefront of the controversial plans to reform Israel’s judiciary

Former government officials, Diaspora Jewish leaders and legal experts have warned against the reforms proposed by Israeli lawmaker Simcha Rothman

Israeli lawmaker Simcha Rothman on Monday was in the crosshairs of controversial government plans to enact a series of legislative reforms that will change – and, say critics, drastically weaken – the way the country’s legal system, particularly its Supreme Court, functions.

As Rothman, a determined legislator and representative of the far-right Religious Zionism party, chaired a stormy session of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to fast-track the judicial reforms, tens of thousands of Israeli workers walked off their jobs and descended on Jerusalem, holding an unprecedented demonstration against the plan outside the Israeli parliament. 

On Sunday night, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay the hearing and seek a compromise so that all sides are satisfied.

“I feel, we all feel, that we are in a moment before a collision, even a violent collision, a barrel of explosives before a blast,” Herzog said in his televised address urging the sides to talk it through and presenting his own five-point plan. 

But Rothman’s panel went ahead as planned, voting the reforms through to the next phase even as opposition lawmakers cried and decried the legislation, singing “I have no other land,” and generally disrupted the hearing until at least 14 of them were eventually expelled from the room. 

Appointed chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee a little over a month ago, the 43-year-old Rothman, who is a member of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, is used to such turmoil in his committee. At the forefront of the reforms, he has been seen almost daily beating back criticisms and claims by the opposition and a host of former justices and legal experts, local and foreign, decrying his proposed reforms package.

Rothman also faces daily scrutiny from most of Israel’s media outlets, and his proposal, combined with a similar reform package being touted by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, has sparked a series of mass protests around the country, drawing upwards of 100,000 citizens into the streets each weekend. 

“If I tried to understand the situation in the U.S. when [Donald] Trump was the president just by watching MSNBC, then I would have thought that the U.S. was going to collapse tomorrow. If I tried to understand what’s happening now in the U.S., during [Joe] Biden’s presidency, only by watching the Daily Wire or Fox News, then I would think that tomorrow morning there will be no U.S., that it’s collapsing,” Rothman, the child of American immigrants, told Jewish Insider in an interview in his Knesset office on Thursday.

“That’s what you get when you read or watch Israeli media or Israeli media in English… Why?” Rothman continued, visibly agitated. “Because it’s extremely biased.”

According to Rothman, who described criticism of the judicial reform proposals as “fake news,” his plan will fix a branch of government that he believes has long been overstepping the boundaries of logical power in a democracy. 

Unlike the executive and legislative branches of the government, which are democratically elected, Rothman believes that the judiciary more or less appoints itself as currently, a larger portion of the selection committee’s members come from the sector and, he says, it operates with little oversight by the other two branches.

With these reforms, Rothman told JI, Israel will become more democratic, not less. And, he added, “There are way more people who are happy about these reforms and who will be deeply upset if they are not passed.”

“After this reform, the State of Israel will elect its judges in the way that most democratic countries in the world elect their judges,” Rothman, who founded and previously served as legal adviser to Meshilut, a movement for governability and democracy, explained.

“The jurisprudence of the court will be like most democratic countries in the world; the power the courts have will be more like any other democratic country in the world, and minority right in Israel will be guarded way better than most democratic countries around the world because of our proportional representation system,” he added.

The legislation that Rothman has presented deals with the composition of the judicial appointments committee, or the panel that formally selects Israeli judges, including the 15 Supreme Court justices; creating a statute that will provide a greater challenge to the court when it seeks to strike down basic laws that its judges deem unconstitutional; and a peeling back of power held by the country’s attorney general, who also doubles as the government’s chief legal advisor.

In an interview with Israel’s top investigative show, “Uvda,” Israel’s former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit last week said that the proposed reforms went far beyond what was necessary. He called Rothman’s proposal a “revolution, regime change.”

Mandelblit, who in part sparked the growing desire for judicial reform in some sectors of Israeli society when he decided to criminally indict Netanyahu while the latter was still a sitting prime minister, said, “It’s a complete change of the DNA upon which we grew up, and the upshot is the elimination of the independence of the legal system from end to end.”

Rothman responded to Mandelblit’s comments on Friday by calling for the former attorney general to be jailed for incitement. 

Speaking to JI, Rothman, who was first elected to the Knesset in 2021, was steadfast in arguing that his changes aim to rein in a court that has long overstepped its boundaries, weighing in and deciding on matters of state, including crucial security issues. He said that the court’s power should be curtailed, which would allow the government to implement the agenda that allowed it to be elected into power. 

“Where is the power today?” asked Rothman, who raised concerns about the judiciary in his 2019 book, Supreme Rulers, How Israel Became a Legalocracy. “It’s in the courts. The court in Israel, unlike any other country and unlike the other branches of government, is the only one that has veto power.”

“As a Knesset member, I cannot veto another member of the Knesset from joining the next Knesset and the government does not elect itself,” he explained. “In the Knesset, we choose the heads of the executive and the cabinet, the cabinet does not choose itself, like the court does, and we are elected by the public.”

“The only branch of government today that is self-appointed, unchecked and unbalanced is the court, and that’s what I’m trying to change,” Rothman emphasized. “I am introducing checks and balances to the system.”

Under his proposal, the executive and legislative branches of the Israeli government will have a greater say in the selection of judges. Rothman said he hopes to see the selection committee comprised of three government ministers, three members of the Knesset (including one from the opposition), and three judges, in contrast to the current makeup of two ministers, two MKs and the other five members drawn from the judiciary. He also hopes to ensure that the procedure is made public by being held in the parliamentary committee he currently chairs.

“If the court has a role in the judicial oversight of laws, even on the rare occasion, and if it has the power to check government actions or make policy calls, then it should be more representative and more democratically selected,” Rothman said. “They should get the mandate to do this from the people, by their elected officials, because we’re a representative democracy and that’s the way it works all around the world for that reason.”

Dr. Guy Lurie, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, told JI that Rothman’s proposals will not only curb or eliminate judicial review of legislation, which is an essential check for a democracy, but will also give the government “complete control over the appointment of judges on all levels.”

He pointed out that under Rothman’s proposal, the judicial selection committee is to be composed of three government ministers and two Knesset members from the coalition, essentially giving it five of the nine votes – a permanent majority. 

“In Israel, the system does not have good checks and balances,” Lurie explained. “The government controls, through its coalition agreements, the Knesset and so you really have very weak checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of the government.”

Lurie added, “In Israel, there is really one strong executive and, unlike in other democracies, there aren’t two houses of the legislature or a president with veto power or a federal system or the other kind of checks and balances that are taken for granted in other kinds of democracies.”

“In Israel,” Lurie continued, “We only have the Supreme Court, which is an independent judiciary, and in essence, what Rothman’s proposal is seeking to do is to put the judiciary under the thumb of the executive, so there will be one strong executive that will have almost no checks on its power.”

Rothman told JI last week that he had no intention of slowing down the pace of his legislative reform. “It only seems like we are moving fast because there is a campaign saying that it’s fast,” he insisted, then admitted, “We are prioritizing this because you cannot do anything else in government if you don’t change the court.”

“I cannot ask the government to fight terror when you cannot fight terror because the court does not allow you,” Rothman explained. “I cannot ask the government to solve the housing crisis if the court does not let you solve the housing crisis.”

“I cannot ask the government to do anything if, as I said, the real power today, the unchecked and unbalanced power, is in the court system,” he continued. “I cannot come to Netanyahu and tell him to do this or do that if he tells me that the court is preventing him.”

“So, this is the first step to let this government actually function and implement the things it wants to implement,” Rothman concluded.

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