Protests show depth of mistrust in Israeli government, says Rothman

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  April 16, 2023

Architect of Israel’s judicial changes doubles down for next round of legislative battle when Knesset reconvenes in May.

The vicious fight in Israel over the government’s proposed judicial changes “transcends issues of left and right, and comes down to public distrust in government”, one of the architects of the plans has said, acknowledging that there is room for compromise going forward.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, returned to office in December at the helm of a coalition of conservative and religious parties that make up the most rightwing government in the country’s history. The new administration’s most pressing issue is what it calls “judicial reform”, which will limit the powerful supreme court’s ability to overturn laws and give politicians more control over the appointment of justices.

Fears of democratic backsliding have ignited Israel’s biggest ever protest movement since the legislation was introduced in January: hundreds of thousands of people in a normally deeply polarised society have taken to the streets every week to demonstrate against what they call a “judicial coup”. An unprecedented day of wildcat strikes across the country last month finally forced Netanyahu to announce a pause in the judicial overhaul until the Knesset reconvenes for its summer session.

Simcha Rothman is a member of the Knesset for the far-right Religious Zionist party and chairs the constitution, justice and law committee. He is one of two men – alongside the justice minister, Yariv Levin – spearheading the judicial proposals, and acknowledged the protests revealed a distrust of the government that he is part of.

“According to all polls, the majority of the public understands there is a need for judicial reform. How much and how deep is the question,” Rothman said in a Guardian interview. Since Israel has no formal constitution or second legislative chamber, both sides of the debate recognise that the court plays an outsized role in public life.

“When you drill down, the protests are about … distrust in government. Many of these people, they’re not conspiracy theorists. They know there’s a need for change, but they think, ‘We don’t trust you people to do it, because you are religious and conservative, and the prime minister has three indictments’,” he said.

“The fight to bring down this government was well planned, and if it wasn’t the reforms, it would be some other issue.”

The Knesset meeting room in which the constitution committee discusses the wide-ranging judicial overhaul before forwarding bills to the floor for votes is soundproof, which is just as well: the shouting matches between Rothman and other parliamentarians are vicious.

In one committee session The Guardian attended in March, Rothman smiled as he verbally shot down a dissenting member of Israel’s once mighty Labor party, which now holds just four opposition seats. “You’re not in charge anymore, we are,” he said. “It’s time for you to sit down and listen.”

Rothman has spent a decade preparing for this role shepherding the judicial changes through the Knesset. A public lawyer by training, with a master’s degree from Northwestern University in Chicago, he is seen in right-wing circles as an authority on the intersection of Israeli law and politics.

The 42-year-old, who has family roots in the US, has long maintained that the country’s supreme court has a leftwing bias, and that a 1995 ruling allowing the court to strike down Knesset legislation gave an unelected bench of justices unchecked power.

He founded the Movement for Governability and Democracy in 2013 aimed at restoring balance between the legislative and judicial branches, and entered the Knesset as a member of the opposition in 2021, when his far-right party cleared the electoral threshold for the first time. In 2022’s election his slate surged to become Israel’s third largest party, a decisive factor helping Netanyahu back into office after 18 months in the wilderness.

The legal scholar now has an unprecedented opportunity to realise his vision, and is determined not to let it slip away.

“Some of the claims [from protesters and the opposition] are really unjust. If we wanted to create a dictatorship we would have done it quickly, we wouldn’t have asked for input in the committee and paused the legislation … But it is a fact that people are genuinely afraid. That is true and it is unfortunate,” Rothman said.

“You can always do better and learn from mistakes … It is a legitimate question to ask what prevents a democracy becoming a dictatorship, but that is true of every parliamentary country. What prevents the UK becoming a tyrannical dictatorship? Nothing on the books. It’s in the culture and the mindset of the people.”

There is room for compromise, Rothman acknowledged, as the government and opposition meet for negotiation talks brokered by Israel’s figurehead president over the Knesset recess – although he prefers the term “agreement”.

“I don’t know how long this will take, and it doesn’t have to be the exact same shape Levin or I think it should take. Some of the opposition don’t see any legitimacy in an agreement so they are not meeting in good faith, so I am optimistic but careful,” he said.

“As long as any proposal doesn’t have a veto on who sits on the court, allows the public to have a say on who the judges are, and prevents the possibility of a takeover by a single political wing, it is something that can work.

“These are not extreme demands. The problem is that in the discourse in the last two months there has been so much fake news it’s become illegitimate to even say that the people should have a say over who are the judges.”

Ultimately, Rothman said, he believed criticism and discussion, no matter how heated, is good for democracy. “The debate should never be over. Imagining there is such a thing as a final say on social issues … That’s the path to tyranny.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian