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Netanyahu is begging for an overhaul lifeline. Nobody wants to give him a way out

Let’s start by dispelling a few inaccuracies making their way through recent reports: The judicial overhaul compromise being talked about is not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s idea.

In fact, the outline was put together by President Isaac Herzog and his staff. A draft was then sent along to Netanyahu’s people: Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and attorney Michael Ravilo. Herzog wanted to know if they would accept it as the basis for talks.

The far-reaching proposal was not an easy one for Netanyahu to swallow. It freezes legislation aimed at curbing the judiciary’s powers until the end of 2024, softens a law voiding the courts’ use of a reasonableness doctrine to judge government moves, and does not jibe well with the government’s plans to remake the roster of the Judicial Selection Committee, which appoints judges to the bench.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu agreed. He is so eager to get the country and himself out of this saga that one imagines he would have also agreed to do a jig while singing Yair Lapid’s praises outside the opposition leader’s home.

The premier had just one condition. “If we’re going to do this deal, can you bring in [National Unity party leader] Benny Gantz?” he asked.

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Having the centrist moderate and his party on board would supposedly give Netanyahu the backing needed to shut down the uncompromising core pushing the overhaul. Herzog said he could get Gantz.

Benny Gantz gives a speech on September 5, 2023 responding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plea for talks on the judicial overhaul. (Courtesy)

“Okay, so if you bring in Gantz, I can get my coalition in line,” the prime minister promised Herzog. Netanyahu was writing a check he couldn’t cash, but he had nothing to lose.

Netanyahu’s team made some small changes to the draft and sent it along. On Tuesday, Gantz told party supporters that he had held talks on the president’s initiative. From the get-go, he has eyed the proposal warily.

Netanyahu, though, placed huge hopes in the president’s plan. He could see the end of the overhaul era — a millstone around his neck — heaving into view. On his trip to Cyprus this week he was on cloud nine and even promised a significant statement on the matter soon.

Unlike in the past, Netanyahu’s messaging during the trip was moderate, not aggressive, and those close to him felt he really believed there could be a breakthrough that not even Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the overhaul’s most ardent booster, couldn’t stop.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara speak to the press from the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on September 3, 2023. (Carrie-Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

On Monday night, as he readied to return from Larnaca, the first push messages about the proposal began to come in. The prime minister’s men gummed up. Some didn’t know anything, others were surprised it had leaked. Eventually, Likud put out an official statement saying the reports were incorrect and there is no agreement.

To Netanyahu’s people, it’s clear that whoever leaked details from the outline Monday was looking to shoot down the deal, and they succeeded in a big way. Netanyahu and his staff think that protest leaders privy to the talks hosted by Gantz’s National Unity were the ones who blabbed.

“Gantz, Lapid and the protest leaders have no interest in getting Netanyahu out of this mess he’s in,” a source close to the premier told Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s sister site. The source rattled off the premier’s struggles: “Diplomatic isolation, a strong, persistent opposition, mass protests in the streets and [pending] legislation on the military draft that could bring down the government.”

Protesters wave flags and placards during a demonstration against the government’s judicial overhaul plan, in Tel Aviv on August 26, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Levin, meanwhile, was alarmed by the turn of events. The justice minister wasn’t in on the compromise talks, and wasn’t privy to the details of outline. Once word got out, Levin disavowed the proposal and went on a media rampage against it, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since his first campaign in the Likud primary.

Senior sources within the coalition believe Levin has spent the last few days working to torpedo any chance of a deal that includes a legislative moratorium. There are those in the coalition who claim it was Levin or his people behind the leak.

Levin went around to all the media outlets to reject, disparage, disavow and cast aspersions on the proposal that Netanyahu gave a green light to. Levin’s allies within Likud, including MKs Avichay Buaron and Hanoch Milwidsky, soon joined him, saying such a proposal could not be accepted.

“It’s hard for us to convince him of something,” the source close to Netanyahu said of the justice minister. “Levin and [Religious Zionism MK] Simcha Rothman think to this day that the reforms didn’t succeed because it’s moving along too slowly. No kidding. They have no idea what they’re doing to this country.”

On Tuesday evening, Netanyahu was still trying to get Gantz to come to his office for talks on the matter the next morning.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a Knesset plenum hearing, July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Later that night, Gantz delivered an address to party supporters, part of which was televised. Those who hoped he would announce he had accepted the proposal got a campaign speech instead.

Gantz poured all his enmity toward Netanyahu into his address. He demanded unilateral and impossible preconditions from the prime minister, including new legislation to freeze the overhaul and soften the reasonableness law.

“There’s nobody to talk to,” he claimed, citing comments from extremists in the coalition and the government. And thus the president’s third attempt at compromise went up in flames, which should tell us something about Herzog and the presidency under him.

The country took another major step backwards on Tuesday. There was a feeling the last few days that something had changed, but after this latest fiasco, one sees little chance of Netanyahu climbing out of the quagmire he finds himself in.

In the forecast: more protests in the streets, plus a major war over legislation exempting the ultra-Orthodox from the military draft, which will be presented in the Knesset once the winter session kicks off next month.

“We have no choice,” the source close to Netanyahu said Tuesday. “If we don’t pass the military draft law, we won’t have a government.”

Buckle up.