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Coalition, opposition come together to reject reported bargain on judicial overhaul

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were quick to pour cold water on the chances for a compromise agreement on legislation to overhaul the judiciary Monday, after a report that coalition and opposition had come to understandings on the contentious issue.

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

President Isaac 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 Israel’s judicial system that will crack down on the ability of judges or other judicial figures to act as a check on government power, sparking vociferous protests among the Knesset opposition and in Israel’s streets. Critics say the moves will put Israel’s status as a liberal democracy at stake.

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Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party said only “there has been no agreement” on any compromise, without closing the door on one being reached.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset on May 23, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

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

The far-right Religious Zionism party, which is allied with Netanyahu, 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 possible deal.

There was no immediate comment from the coalition’s Shas party, 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.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaks during a Knesset debate ahead of a vote on the ‘reasonableness’ bill, July 23, 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.

“I am not ready to compromise on anything, I am ready to reach agreements,” he said at a Jewish People Policy Institute conference in Jerusalem. “Not willing to compromise on legal independence but willing to reach agreements on certain details such as the minimum majority for Basic Laws.”

According to the Ynet news site, 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.

Others opposed to the government rejected talks outright and said they would not back any compromise, though with 66 MKS between Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity alone, their backing would be moot anyway.

“If a certain opposition party reaches understandings with Netanyahu and his representatives, they do that on their own,” Labor party chief Merav Michaeli wrote on X, adding that only the end of the current government will suffice.

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.”

Protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul legislation march in Tel Aviv on August 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Avigdor Liberman, head of the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party, echoed the same sentiment, calling 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.

According to the reported framework agreement, the government would advance a “softer” version of the recently passed law voiding 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 the Supreme Court president.

The Walla news site reported that Netanyahu is urging Herzog to publicize the terms of a proposal to freeze the upcoming judicial overhaul legislation before any deal has been reached. The premier is reportedly seeking progress on the issue ahead of a meeting with US President Joe Biden later this month. Also looming are High Court hearings on the reasonableness law and on Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s refusal to convene the Judicial Selection Committee.