By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of the judiciary gained ground on Wednesday with the election of one of their advocates to a post with a degree of clout over a key panel for selecting judges.
Ex-prosecutor Amit Becher was voted chairman of the Israel Bar Association after an unusually public feud with a candidate promoted by members of the country’s nationalist-religious camp.
Yair Lapid, the liberal leader of the Israeli parliamentary opposition, hailed the results of Tuesday’s vote as “a victory for justice, truth and democracy” in a Twitter post.
Among Netanyahu’s reforms, which have sparked months of unprecedented street protests, would be an expansion of the Judicial Appointments Committee, spelling more sway for the coalition.
The panel currently comprises nine members, two of them lawyers under the Bar chairman’s purview. The others are Supreme Court justices, cabinet ministers and parliamentarians, a mix meant to encourage a measure of give-and-take on bench picks.
“It’s clear the coalition tried to take over the committee,” Becher told Tel Aviv 103 FM radio. “That’s now been halted.”
His rival, Efraim (Efi) Nave, denied being a government “proxy”. Still, Ayelet Shaked, a one-time justice minister who championed limits to Supreme Court powers like those sought by Netanyahu, had described Nave as a conservative ally.
Israelis on both sides of the divide saw the 77,201-member Bar as their latest battleground. Netanyahu did not comment on the election, but his far-right finance minister had urged against voting for Becher, deeming the candidate an “extremist”.
Polling stations were kept open overtime to accommodate registered lawyers who turned out in twice the number of previous elections, the Bar said. Many lined up for hours. The final tally gave Becher 73% of ballots and Nave 19%.
“I don’t consider myself so important that people who never voted in the Bar suddenly had nothing more important to do than vote against me. No – they came to vote against the reforms,” Nave – who has also been dogged by personal scandals – told Army Radio.
The Judicial Appointments Committee needs to address a bench backlog, including in the Supreme Court, two of whose 15 justices retire in the coming months. But when the panel might convene – a government decision – remains unclear.
The coalition’s bill to expand it was suspended along with other reforms in March when Netanyahu entered compromise talks with the opposition. Declaring them fruitless on Sunday, Netanyahu said he would resume some legislation.
Work on that scheduled for Wednesday was postponed, however, following a Palestinian attack that killed four Israelis.
The coalition says the overhaul aims to balance out branches of government and prevent court overreach. Critics fear a bid by Netanyahu to curb judicial independence even as he argues his innocence in a corruption case against him.
(Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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