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Herzog urges overhaul compromise as Levin rejects ‘impossible’ proposal

Justice Minister Yariv Levin rejected a reported compromise agreement on legislation to overhaul the judiciary on Tuesday, and said his position on the plan to remake the legal system was supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Calling the proposal “spin,” Levin told Kol Berama, a Haredi radio station, “I don’t know that there was an agreement, and it is impossible to agree to the new compromise proposal.”

“[The proposal] does not change the basic thing that is required — changing the committee for selecting judges,” said Levin, the architect of the overhaul plan.

He also said that his position on the judicial overhaul was supported by the premier. “There is no change from the prime minister regarding the reform, contrary to all the reports,” Levin said.

Asked about a potential constitutional crisis, Levin would only say that the government has respected the Supreme Court’s rulings in the past, while the court has upheld the Basic Laws.

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“The prime minister rightly said that over the years, governments have respected the rulings of the court, and the court has respected the Basic Laws,” Levin said. “I hope that will be the case this time as well. The responsibility now rests with the Supreme Court.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum during a vote on the coalition’s ‘reasonableness’ bill, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An upcoming High Court hearing on the legality of the government’s recently passed “reasonableness” law has sown concern regarding the possibility of such a crisis, in the event that the country’s top court strikes down legislation passed by the Knesset to curb the court’s own powers.

“There are moments in crises of this sort when leadership is required to take advantage of the rare opportunity to reach out and come to agreements, and this is one of those moments,” he said.

“We are just before Rosh Hashanah, before the High Holidays, and for nine months we have been in a deep crisis that dramatically affects our lives, significantly affects our security, affects our economy, affects our society, affects our human behavior. Enough,” Herzog added.

“I call on the leaders to show responsibility, to look reality in the eye, to reach out, to make an effort, not to postpone, to come together to make every effort and to try to reach a broad agreement,” he said.

President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, June 14, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Herzog’s office confirmed Monday night that he was hosting indirect talks aimed at finding common ground, but denied the Channel 12 news report that agreements had been reached.

A source in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office also confirmed to The Times of Israel that talks were being held, some two months after a first attempt at reaching a compromise on the overhaul crumbled amid disagreements over the makeup of a key panel that nominates judges to the Supreme Court and other benches.

Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is pushing for a raft of changes to the legal system that will limit the ability of judges or other judicial figures to act as a check on government power, sparking vociferous protests among the Knesset opposition and on the streets. Critics say the moves have put Israel’s status as a liberal democracy at risk.

According to the reported framework agreement, the government would advance a “softer” version of a recently passed law that eliminated the reasonableness standard for cabinet and ministerial decisions; agree to an 18-month freeze on efforts to reshape the Judicial Selection Committee, which chooses judges; and back a reform requiring at least seven of the nine members of the panel to agree to any appointments, including that of a new Supreme Court president.

Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party said only that “there has been no agreement” on any compromise, without closing the door on the possibility of getting there.

However, on Tuesday at least two MKs on the far-right flank of the party rejected the proposal.

Likud MK Tally Gotliv went further, attacking Netanyahu in an interview with Channel 12 news.

“The days when Prime Minister Netanyahu does not share with the members of his faction, and acts alone, are over,” she said. “We are not marionettes that can be operated by whim.”

Likud MK Tally Gotliv speaks during a Knesset committee meeting on August 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud MK Nissim Vaturi, deputy speaker of the Knesset, dismissed the proposal as “nonsense” in an interview with Kol Chai, a Haredi radio station.

“I have no idea who issued this nonsense proposal… This is clearly not acceptable to us,” he said. “There is no proposal. The reform will be advanced.”

Netanyahu is reportedly seeking progress on the issue ahead of a hoped-for meeting with US President Joe Biden later this month. Also looming are the High Court hearings on the reasonableness law and on Levin’s refusal to convene the Judicial Selection Committee.

According to reports, Netanyahu is urging Herzog to publicize the terms of the proposal before any deal has been reached. However, the Ynet news site said Tuesday that Herzog has said he will not do so until the opposition has agreed to it.

Both anti-government protest leaders and far-right politicians rejected the possible deal on Monday, while parties closer to the center of the political spectrum stayed quiet or issued laconic denials.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a key coalition ally who heads the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party, posted on X, formerly Twitter, that his six MKs “will vote against any surrender that comes up for a vote.”

The far-right Religious Zionism party, which is headed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, also said it was unwilling to consider “a surrender by the majority to an extreme minority willing to burn everything down,” though it claimed it was always up for talks and compromise.

Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, claimed his party had “no connection to anything regarding the judicial reform,” insisting that it was simply following coalition agreements and would back Netanyahu on any potential deal.

There was no immediate comment from the coalition’s other Haredi patrty, Shas, which has pushed for some parts of the judicial overhaul.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party were also silent on the reported talks, but MK Ram Ben Barak of the party said, “There is no compromise.”

Anti-overhaul protesters outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on July 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Unity party head Benny Gantz, who has often played the opposition’s most willing interlocutor in talks with the government, also stayed mum, though earlier in the day he talked up the importance of an agreement.

According to Ynet, Gantz has refused to take part in direct talks with the coalition over the issue but has been holding conversations with Herzog in recent days.

Avigdor Liberman, head of the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party, called on his fellow opposition figures to “not fall into this trap again.”

“Netanyahu is once again deceiving everybody and attempting to buy time and legitimacy,” he said.

In a statement, protest leaders said that opposition politicians “do not have a mandate for a bad compromise on democracy.”

The activists stated that “the talks will only achieve one thing: saving Netanyahu, legitimizing his destructive government, and promoting his vision for a dictatorship under the cover of ‘agreements.’ The notion of agreeing on one or two laws while leaving aside the others will end with Israel becoming a Middle East version of Hungary, Turkey and Poland.”