Herzog pushes deal; Lapid supportive, Gantz said to oppose

Biden: Israeli leaders should find consensus, not rush ‘divisive’ judicial overhaul

Amid talk of possible compromise, US president says ‘it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this,’ given range of threats and challenges facing the Jewish state

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, June 30, 2023, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, June 30, 2023, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden said Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline coalition should not rush their “divisive” bid to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, given the numerous threats and challenges Israel faces, and should instead work to build broad consensus for legal reform.

“From the perspective of Israel’s friends in the United States, it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less,” Biden said in a statement to the Axios news site.

“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” the president said.

Sunday’s statement appeared to be a last-ditch effort by the White House to coax Netanyahu into halting the overhaul, hours before the coalition aims to pass the first piece of legislation from the overhaul package. It came amid reports of progress in 11th-hour negotiations between the ruling bloc and opposition leaders to strike a compromise regarding the “reasonableness” bill set to come to a vote on Monday.

Lamenting a “time of emergency,” President Isaac Herzog, freshly returned from talks with Biden in Washington, said earlier Sunday that he was making a last-ditch push to promote a compromise between the coalition and opposition, with the aim of forging a consensus judicial reform package amid the escalating, bitter standoff that has prompted hundreds of thousands to protest for several days and left more than 10,000 military reservists prepared to halt their volunteer duty.

Biden and his administration have repeatedly warned Netanyahu and his hard-right, religious coalition against pursuing a remake of Israel’s independent judiciary without agreement.

President Joe Biden and Israel’s President Isaac Herzog speak in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, July 18, 2023. (Chris Kleponis)

Just last week, Biden issued a statement to The New York Times in which he said, “This is obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship.

“Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need,” he continued. “For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”

But Netanyahu did not alter course and told Biden in a phone call a day before the president gave the statement to the Times that the opposition isn’t interested in compromise and that he would be going ahead with the legislation curtailing judicial review without the broad consensus he once assured Washington that he would secure. The Israeli premier told Biden, however, that he would seek more widespread support for subsequent parts of the overhaul, which would be passed later this year.

It took until last week’s phone call for Biden to agree to meet with Netanyahu, following seven months of refraining from such a sit-down due to the administration’s ongoing displeasure with the judicial overhaul plans and Jerusalem’s policies in the West Bank.

President Isaac Herzog speaks to the media outside the West Wing of the White House after meeting with President Joe Biden, July 18, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Back from his US visit, Herzog headed straight to Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, where Netanyahu is recuperating after having a pacemaker installed overnight, and then also sat down with opposition leader Yair Lapid, of Yesh Atid, and National Unity party chief Benny Gantz.

Lapid appeared to throw his support behind Herzog’s proposal — which reportedly involves a softening of the provisions of the “reasonableness” bill, and a freeze on subsequent overhaul legislation to enable substantive negotiations — but Gantz was reported to not be in favor. Protest organizers are vehemently opposed to reaching a compromise with the government.

According to the Ynet news site, most details about Herzog’s proposal have generally been accepted, but the sticking point is how far down the road the rest of the overhaul bills would be pushed. Netanyahu’s Likud is willing to wait no more than three months, while Lapid is demanding at least 15 months.

Channel 12 news said Gantz was not content with pushing the most sticky subjects down the road and favors a comprehensive solution.

There was no official word on the proposals discussed at the meetings. Channel 12 news reported in the evening that the gaps between the sides on a potential softening of the “reasonableness” bill were not insurmountable, and that the main sticking point was the opposition’s demand for an 18-month freeze on any further legislation.

On Sunday evening, Israelis opposed and in favor of the judicial overhaul held dueling demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, respectively, after the Knesset on Sunday morning began the process of enacting the “reasonableness” law that will end judicial scrutiny over the “reasonableness” of cabinet and ministerial decisions.

Right-wing demonstrators backing the government and its judicial overhaul plans rally in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Barring a last-minute breakthrough, it is set to become the first major legislative win for the parliamentary coalition’s platform to curtail judicial checks on governmental power.

Netanyahu’s coalition has indicated that it is barreling ahead with the “reasonableness” legislation to show movement on its judicial overhaul program before the Knesset breaks for its summer recess on July 30.

Advanced on a rushed timeline that only dedicated nine committee sessions to preparing the core text for a substantive amendment to one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, the bill is expected to clear extensive filibusters to become law by Monday or Tuesday.

Supporters of the bill say it is improper for an unelected bench of judges to exercise their judgment over discretionary or policy matters, which are often folded into administrative decisions. Critics say that the broad removal of such scrutiny will reduce the government’s need to go through proper processes when making decisions from the outset. And by removing protection on appointments, it can open the path to ending the independence of democratic gatekeepers.

The measure is billed as a precursor to a more substantive change to the judiciary, with coalition leaders saying the next step is to increase political influence over judicial selection. Coalition leaders are also pushing to give the Knesset a mechanism to override court invalidations of legislation, a controversial power that Netanyahu recently told US media he would not pursue, only to face severe backlash from his ultra-Orthodox political partners.

Meanwhile, anti-overhaul protesters have ratcheted up the pressure by staging their weekly mass demonstration on Saturday and another large rally on Sunday in the capital at the end of a four-day “March on Jerusalem” to set up a tent camp in Sacher Park near the Knesset, where they say they will remain until the legislation is shelved.

Anti-overhaul protesters near the Supreme Court and the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 23, 2023. (Yair Palti)

Also on Saturday, some 10,000 IDF reservists said they will suspend their volunteer reserve duty in protest of the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system. This followed an announcement Friday when more than 1,142 Israeli Air Force reservists, including over 400 pilots, issued a letter saying that they will suspend their volunteer reserve duty

These moves were the latest to send shockwaves through the military, which is struggling to stem a growing flood of reserve troops dropping out of volunteer duty to protest the overhaul, as defense officials warn the phenomenon could affect national preparedness.

Amid the growing protests within the military, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was said to working to try and delay the Knesset vote on the reasonableness bill and work toward a “wide consensus” that will “ensure the security of the State of Israel, while leaving the IDF separate from political discourse.”

The defense minister was instrumental in getting the controversial overhaul paused in late March. After calling for a halt to the legislation in a public address, he was fired by Netanyahu, leading to massive protests, a nationwide labor strike and the shuttering of Ben Gurion airport.

Netanyahu temporarily suspended the legislation, agreed to talks with the opposition under Herzog’s aegis that have since broken down, and eventually reinstated Gallant.

This time, Channel 12 reported Friday, Gallant was trying to work within the political system to try and defuse the crisis.

In a follow-up report on Sunday, Channel 12 said Netanyahu immediately called Gallant after his efforts on a compromise were reported by the network on Friday and angrily told the defense minister to back off.

“You think your proposal can be beneficial but it does great harm. Stop acting like you’re the prime minister. I’m handling the incident, stop interfering,” Netanyahu was reported by Channel 12 to have told Gallant during their call.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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