ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 63

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As Netanyahu urges judicial talks, Gantz says open to compromise but PM can’t deliver

Likud leader offers face-to-face talks after meeting Justice Minister Levin, who opposes plan reportedly accepted by premier; National Unity party head dismisses call as ‘spin’

National Unity leader Benny Gantz speaks at an event with party supporters in the Drom HaSharon Regional Council, September 5, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
National Unity leader Benny Gantz speaks at an event with party supporters in the Drom HaSharon Regional Council, September 5, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said Tuesday that his opposition party would agree in principle to have a newly floated compromise proposal on judicial legislation serve as a basis for negotiations with the coalition, stressing he was committed to reaching an agreement but dismissing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest call for face-to-face talks as “spin.”

Gantz’s remark came as President Isaac Herzog has renewed his push to broker a deal between the sides, following the collapse of talks he hosted earlier this year and after the passage in July of a law curbing the courts’ oversight powers, the first piece of legislation approved in the government’s highly controversial judicial overhaul plan.

But following reports Monday on the new proposals, which Hebrew media outlets said Netanyahu had agreed to, both Herzog’s and Netanyahu’s offices acknowledged the renewed dialogue but denied any deal was reached. Meanwhile, numerous hardline coalition members — including the powerful Justice Minister Yariv Levin of Netanyahu’s Likud party, as well as far-right faction leaders — and also some opposition figures denounced the reported offer.

Addressing a gathering of National Unity activists in a primetime televised address, Gantz said he had recently been filled in by Herzog about the proposal, and that he was assured it was accepted by the prime minister, but that he does not believe that Netanyahu can deliver on such a deal — noting the public opposition by the coalition hardliners.

“What is clear is that Israel is ruled by an extreme minority government,” Gantz said.

The National Unity party head left a door open for a negotiated deal, but said Netanyahu first has to show he is capable of delivering amid major objections from Levin and others in the coalition.

He said he told the president “that I have difficulty seeing the coalition supporting the outline, but it is our duty to try — with the necessary responsibility and caution.”

President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial overhaul negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)

Gantz said he and his party colleagues had therefore closely analyzed the proposal and decided that “if we reached an agreement [with Netanyahu], and we did not reach an agreement, first the reasonableness [law, limiting judicial oversight] would be corrected,” and then a law would be passed providing for all further judicial overhaul legislation to be frozen.

But “reality has proven that there is no one to talk to at this time,” Gantz continued, calling Netanyahu’s partners “barn-burners who have not laid down their torches.”

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 eight months of vociferous criticism from the Knesset opposition and relentless mass protests on the streets. Proponents say the moves will rein in an overpowered justice system, while 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 bars courts from evaluating the “reasonableness” of cabinet and ministerial decisions; agree to an 18-month freeze on legislation to reshape the Judicial Selection Committee, which chooses the country’s 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.

“Only yesterday, Netanyahu and Likud denied and rejected their own proposal, and today Netanyahu disseminates a new spin and calls for dialogue,” Gantz said, speaking minutes after Netanyahu had issued a short video clip urging Gantz’s team to meet his representatives for talks.

Gantz called for Netanyahu to dissolve the government and for fresh elections to be called: “Netanyahu needs to disperse the government and disperse the Knesset, and the State of Israel needs to go to elections that will allow the healing of Israeli society.”

Gantz charged that “there is no effective prime minister in Israel,” and that Netanyahu “first does what is good for him and only after that what is good for the state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin as the Knesset deliberates a bill to cancel the judiciary’s review powers over the ‘reasonableness’ of government decisions, in Jerusalem on July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He said the country was facing the worst security situation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with the IDF “facing disintegration” and losing preparedness, amid a wave of threats by thousands of reservists to halt their volunteer duty in protest of the overhaul.

Israel, he said, “is facing a threat to our democracy, to our system of governance.” This threat is posed by “a government led by extremists, who don’t want to fix and reform but want unrestrained control over the judicial system, and not only over that — also over the media, the education institutions, economic institutions and the entire public system.”

The rift is harming the “Israeli resilience that was always the source of Israel’s power.”

He vowed to put the good of the state first and to protect Israeli democracy, even as “Netanyahu and his partners have decided to plunge Israel into the deepest crisis.”

He said he felt a national obligation to examine the framework presented to him by the president, that “it’s really not the framework of our dreams,” but that “we were prepared to discuss it as a basis to stopping the constitutional coup and regime change in Israel, with the assumption that when we are in power — and we will be in power — we will lead a wider process to entrench the rule of law and anchor the rules of governance and democracy via broad and fair agreement.”

Gantz said of the prime minister: “I’ll tell you straight, I don’t know if Netanyahu is a partner of the extremists — because of his personal interests — or their captive, out of weakness. But what’s clear, to our sorrow, is that a minority, extremist government is in control” — a coalition that he said does not represent the national majority, and “not even the majority of the public that elected it.”

This “extremist minority… has decided to take apart Israel’s democratic values. This minority is dragging us into the abyss.”

He urged coalition moderates “to make their voices heard.”

If, in the future, the moderates in the coalition have the upper hand, “and we can prevent the destruction of democracy, we’ll be there,” he said. “If there is a proven, real possibility in the future… to reach an agreement that will protect democracy… our hands will be outstretched.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, center, talks to Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a vote on the ‘reasonableness’ bill at Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shortly before Gantz’s scheduled address, Netanyahu put out a videotaped message calling on Gantz to meet for talks without preconditions.

“[The nation] wants us to reach agreements. But in order to reach agreements, one simple thing must be done: put aside all the prerequisites, all the obstacles, enter the room and talk,” Netanyahu said.

“Therefore, tomorrow morning I invite your team to sit down with our team and do what most of the people of Israel expect: we will sit down and reach agreements,” he added.

Netanyahu did not address the compromise proposal and whether he has agreed to it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issues a video plea to MK Benny Gantz to meet and negotiate over the judicial overhaul on September 9, 2023. (Screencapture)

After Gantz’s remarks, Netanyahu’s Likud party put out a response blasting the National Unity chief, accusing him of “fleeing every attempt to reach agreements.”

“Zero leadership, zero statesmanship,” Likud said.

Swiping back at Likud, National Unity implied the prime minister was disingenuous in offering his olive branch before Gantz’s primetime statement.

“The unfortunate truth is that it’s not clear if Netanyahu wants agreements. What is certain is that at this moment, he’s unable [to reach them],” the party said.

The leaders of the protest movement against the judicial overhaul also dismissed Netanyahu’s offer of talks.

“Netanyahu is a liar, a cheat and a fraud,” the Kaplan Force group said in a statement. “The point of the negotiations is clear — for Netanyahu to get a visit to the White House and then use the talks to continue the dictatorial legislation and crush the rule of law and democracy.”

“We all hope that Gantz will choose not to take part in Netanyahu’s spin at the price of Israeli democracy,” the statement, issued shortly before Gantz’s speech, added.

Protesters rally against the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Gitai Palti)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — a Likud member who was fired by Netanyahu in March for calling to pause the judicial overhaul, in a move later reversed by the premier following popular backlash — issued a call for compromise.

“The citizens of Israel and the IDF need cohesion and unity,” Gallant posted on X, formerly Twitter.

“This is the time to put aside disagreement and find what is common and unites us. I call on my friends in the Knesset to reach a compromise quickly for the State of Israel and the security of Israel,” he added.

Gallant has been one of the few coalition members to urge compromise on the overhaul, frequently warning that the fallout was severely harming the military.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat, also of Likud, threw his support behind Netanyahu’s calls for direct talks with the opposition, saying he backed efforts to reach “broad agreement.”

“Israel is facing serious challenges to its security, foreign relations and economy. In these days, when our enemies are watching us fight each other, we have to put our disagreements aside and reach broad understandings among the people of Israel,” said Barkat, who has been largely silent on the issue.

He said reaching a compromise would “not be a surrender, but a sign of courage.”

Netanyahu earlier Tuesday held consultations on how to proceed with the reported compromise offer, according to Hebrew media reports, which said the talks were attended by Levin as well as Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and lawyer Michael Rabello, both of whom have represented Likud in talks.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Netanyahu told his negotiators to let the President’s Residence know he’s interested in going forward with the talks after speaking with Levin in an effort to convince him to get on board, though it was unclear if the justice minister agreed to this.

President Isaac Herzog, right, grants Likud party chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu the mandate to form a new government, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Also Tuesday, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni said the ultra-Orthodox parties need to reconsider how to proceed with the judicial overhaul, amid mounting reports that they are unhappy with the coalition’s focus on the subject.

“I personally think that we need to weigh exactly how we go forward — like this or like that — with the reform,” Gafni said speaking at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting.

“We need to do our assessment whether it is better to proceed as we have until now. We in UTJ need to make our assessment, and I assume Shas also does,” he said.

“There are important things that need to be done and I’m not sure this [current path] is the way to do it,” Gafni added. “Maybe we will go on a different path.”

Shas, the coalition’s other Haredi party, which has pushed for some parts of the judicial overhaul, has been mum so far.

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.

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