AG said to rebuff Herzog request to let Netanyahu engage in dialogue on judiciary

Baharav-Miara argues PM cannot be involved due to 2020 conflict of interest arrangement barring him from matters that could impact his ongoing trial on graft charges

President Isaac Herzog attends the funeral of former Israeli parliament speaker Shevach Weiss at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem on February 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Isaac Herzog attends the funeral of former Israeli parliament speaker Shevach Weiss at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem on February 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

President Isaac Herzog has reportedly asked Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take part in proposed negotiations over the government’s contentious plans to radically shake up the judiciary, Hebrew media reported on Thursday,

Netanyahu’s lawyers previously made the same appeal to Baharav-Miara, according to Monday reports.

Baharav-Miara shot down both requests, arguing that Netanyahu cannot be involved in Herzog’s proposed compromise talks, due to a 2020 conflict of interest arrangement barring him from involvement in matters that could impact his ongoing trial on graft charges, including the planned overhaul of the judiciary.

Hebrew media also widely reported earlier this week that Netanyahu’s lawyers sought permission from Baharav-Miara for the prime minister to make public statements about the judicial overhaul plan, but were rebuffed.

On Wednesday, Channel 12 news cited sources in Netanyahu’s Likud party who said allowing the prime minister to publicly respond to and deal with Herzog’s proposal for a compromise was necessary in order for that initiative to succeed.

The network said that Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the judicial overhaul plan, were at loggerheads over the plans amid intense public pushback that has included warnings from security officials, business leaders and legal experts, as well as mass protests and civil strikes.

According to Channel 12, Netanyahu has sought to soften elements of the sweeping reforms, while Levin has threatened to resign from his position and work toward bringing down the coalition if significant changes are made.

Both Netanyahu’s and Levin’s offices denied the report.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara attends a conference in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Levin’s proposed plans for the judiciary would drastically limit the High Court of Justice’s power of judicial review of legislation; allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws if the court strikes them down; give the government control over judicial appointments; turn ministry legal advisers’ into political appointees, and make their counsel non-binding.

Last month, Levin argued that Netanyahu’s indictment convinced the public of the need to reduce the powers of the judiciary, for the first time linking his controversial package of laws aimed at reining in the courts to the premier’s legal travails.

Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases, facing charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated in an attempted political coup led by the police, the state prosecution, the media, and leftist rivals.

Government critics have long accused Netanyahu and allied lawmakers of seeking to overhaul the court system in order for the prime minister to wriggle out of criminal charges leveled against him. While Levin did not portray Netanyahu’s trial as the impetus for the judicial makeover presented in January, his comments to the Knesset plenum underlined the tangle of political and personal interests surrounding the hot-button issue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at his side, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

The High Court of Justice is reviewing a petition brought last week by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel seeking to declare the prime minister unfit for office. The group argues that Netanyahu is in violation of that conflict of interest arrangement and is “incapable of separating between his legal matters and the management of the country” while “trying to destroy democracy.”

The court gave Netanyahu a month to respond to the petition.

Amid the escalating opposition to the judicial plans over the past month, Herzog called in a speech to the nation on Sunday night for compromise, warning of acute damage to Israel’s societal cohesion if sweeping changes were made without broad agreement.

Herzog, acknowledging the need for some version of judicial changes, laid out a five-point plan that he believed could form the basis for a compromise between the coalition and the opposition.

President Isaac Herzog delivers a message to the nation from his office in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

On Tuesday night, the president met with one of the lawmakers leading the charge in the Knesset, Simcha Rothman, as well as opposition chief Yair Lapid and the leader of the centrist National Unity party, Benny Gantz.

The meetings, which all took place at the president’s official residence in Jerusalem, were aimed at pushing the parties to engage in dialogue in a bid to end the bitter standoff.

The coalition is determined to push the legislation through as soon as possible but has said it would simultaneously engage in compromise talks with the opposition. However, the opposition has insisted that the legislative process must be halted to allow good-faith negotiations to take place.

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