Citing ‘deals in the dark,’ Labor party quits judicial overhaul talks with president

Opposition party says it joined negotiations despite ‘great skepticism’ but there’s ‘no point in continuing’; Herzog to host negotiations Monday on ‘the core issues’

In this handout photo, President Isaac Herzog meets with representatives of the Labor party at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, March 29, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
In this handout photo, President Isaac Herzog meets with representatives of the Labor party at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, March 29, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The Labor party on Sunday announced it would pull out of talks sponsored by President Isaac Herzog aimed at reaching a broad agreement over the government’s controversial judicial overhaul legislation, claiming that backroom deals were being cut without its involvement.

In a letter to Herzog, the center-left party’s delegation — made up of MKs Efrat Rayten and Gilad Kariv, former justice minister Avi Nissenkorn and legal scholar Tamar Hostovsky Brandes — said that its members would cease taking part in the talks after learning about “conversations taking place in the dark and deals being made far from the public eye, without our involvement.”

It did not offer further details on the alleged deals.

Labor further cited Likud minister David Amsalem’s comments Saturday night calling for Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and other prominent figures opposed to the overhaul to be put on trial, denouncing them as “scandalous.”

It also accused the coalition of waging a “campaign of unending incitement against the judicial system in Israel, which they want to destroy.

“In view of these patterns of conduct, there is no point to us continuing our attempt to participate in the talks held at the President’s Residence,” the party said, noting that it had joined the talks out of a “sense of national responsibility” but “despite great skepticism” about the government’s intentions.

In response, a spokesperson for Herzog said that the president “will continue to be open to anyone who wishes to be part of the negotiations, in order to reach as broad an agreement as possible.”

Labor party head MK Merav Michaeli at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was not clear if Labor’s decision would have any impact on the talks, which have primarily been held between Yesh Atid and National Unity on one side and the ruling coalition on the other. Labor skipped the initial round of meetings with Herzog, expressing doubts that Prime Minister Benjamin Netayanhu’s Likud party was seeking to negotiate in good faith, but later sent representatives.

Fellow opposition party Yisrael Beytenu has stayed away from the talks altogether and protest organizers have continued to express heavy skepticism, alleging they are a ruse to quell the protest movement and advance the legislation quietly.

Herzog’s office said later Sunday that opposition and coalition representatives would convene the next day for “concentrated and in-depth” negotiations. A statement from the President’s Residence said the latest talks will “deal with the core issues,” after previous rounds focused on procedural matters and establishing trust between the sides.

“The President’s Residence will continue to do everything in its power to encourage the parties to continue such dialogue aimed at reaching a broad agreement,” the statement said.

Earlier Sunday, Kan news reported that negotiations at Herzog’s residence have produced a potential compromise on the makeup of the committee responsible for appointing judges.

According to the reported framework, the committee will be staffed neither by politicians nor judges. Instead, representatives will be appointed by politicians and judges according to an agreed-upon set of criteria. The representatives will come from a range of fields, and will be legal figures, academics, researchers, retired judges and others.

Under the proposal, the coalition would still be able to appoint a majority of representatives to the committee. After a certain unspecified period of time, the representatives would become completely independent and would no longer require the support of the MK or judge that nominated them.

The makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee has been a major obstacle in establishing an agreement between the government and the opposition.

Protesters against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, April 15, 2023. (Amir Goldstein/Courtesy)

The judicial appointments legislation was set to be passed into law at the end of March, but mass protests, widespread strikes, opposition from numerous sectors of Israeli society, pleas from Herzog, and the intense opposition of reservists in some critical IDF units forced the government to back down and enter a negotiation process.

Opponents worry that the bill could go before the Knesset plenum for final approval at a moment’s notice once the Knesset returns from its Passover recess at the end of the month.

They say the legislation in its current form will drastically weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Proponents of the government’s overhaul plans say reforms are needed to rein in politically motivated judicial activism.

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