Coalition said open to only minor ‘cosmetic’ compromises on judicial makeover

Justice Ministry professionals set to present position on plan to dilute court’s power over government, are reportedly expected to raise difficulties

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition lawmakers will only make small “cosmetic” adjustments to a planned package of controversial legislation aimed at diluting the High Court’s power, Channel 12 reported Sunday night, hours after President Isaac Herzog said he would attempt to mediate between the warring sides over the issue.

Meanwhile, Haaretz reported that Justice Ministry professionals are set to formulate their position in the next few weeks regarding Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals for sweeping reforms to the country’s justice system.

The paper said ministry officials plan to submit their position within some three weeks, but that Levin is seeking to expedite the process, as he is concerned that the expected back and forth over the matter could push the legislative process beyond the Knesset’s winter session.

The ministry’s position is to be drafted by the Legal Counsel and Legislative Affairs Department.

Sources in the ministry told Haaretz they expected the department, which works in coordination with Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, to point to numerous difficulties with the legislation in its current form, which could set up a clash between Levin and his ministry.

Amid massive pushback against the overhaul plans, opposition leader Yair Lapid, meanwhile, appeared poised to step up protests against the government, reportedly meeting with Histadrut union chief Arnon Bar-David in hopes of winning support from the nation’s most powerful labor boss.

The judicial overhaul, announced by Levin last week, would dilute the ability of Israel’s courts and judiciary to act as a check on political power by hamstringing the High Court’s power to strike down laws or judge government decisions based on a “reasonableness” test. It would also give the government a decisive say over judge appointments and allow ministers to hand-pick the legal counsel advising ministries.

Coalition sources speaking to Channel 12 said while the government was open to discussing possible compromises over the package, any changes to its plan would be minor and not substantially change the judicial makeover.

While lawmakers are unwilling to budge on matters like allowing the Knesset to override a court veto on legislation that violates Israel’s Basic Laws, one possible compromise would be to bring the number of government politicians on the Judicial Selections Committee down from the proposed seven to six members, according to the report.

Having six politicians on the panel of 11 would still allow it to have a majority, preserving what the government hopes will result in a final say over judge appointments.

The government may also be willing to show flexibility on the reasonableness doctrine, the channel said, without attributing to a source.

According to the report, the coalition is waiting to decide on the matter until the court rules on Shas leader Aryeh Deri being made a minister despite prior convictions. In her opinion on Deri last week, Attorney General Baharav-Miara cited the reasonableness doctrine in rejecting his suitability to serve as interior or health minister.

President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut (center) and colleagues hold a hearing on petitions demanding they block the return of Shas leader Aryeh Deri as a minister due to his recent conviction and suspended sentence for tax offenses, at the High Court in Jerusalem, January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition members have been accused in the past of using the threat of the judicial overhaul to try and sway the court’s opinion, and may now be turning to the media to dangle a carrot in front of Israel’s highest bench, along with its legislative stick.

Speaking at a conference of the Attorneys Union at a hotel near the Dead Sea, Deputy Attorney General Sharon Afek said state attorneys should not have their roles politicized.

“We owe loyalty to the entire public. We owe the public a double duty — both to promote the government policy that the public chose and also to protect the public interest and the rule of law,” he said.

Damaging the independence of the judiciary “will be a source of constant regret,” he warned.

Earlier Sunday, Herzog revealed that he had been using his office to try and mediate between those for and against the reforms, after being accused by some protesters of inaction.

“Over the past week, I have been working full time, by every means, making nonstop efforts with the relevant parties, with the aim of creating wide-reaching, attentive, and respectful discussion and dialogue, which I hope will yield results,” he said.

Herzog attempted to temper expectations, however, and admitted that “there is still a long way to go and significant gaps remain.”

The proposed changes by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government have roiled much of the country and deepened ideological rifts between left and right. On Saturday night, some 80,000 people rallied against the proposed changes in Tel Aviv, with a smaller crowd gathering in Jerusalem.

People protest against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A new rally was being planned for this coming Saturday night in Tel Aviv, though organizers appeared split on the location. While the Movement for Quality Government said it would continue to protest at Habima Square, other organizers told Hebrew-language media that they would gather on Saturday night at the government complex on Kaplan Street before marching through nearby streets.

The location would put the protest near some of the city’s busiest traffic intersections, and may challenge new orders from National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir that police arrest any demonstrators who block vehicular traffic.

Meanwhile Lapid, who did not attend the rally but has sought to lead efforts against the reforms from the Knesset, reportedly held a meeting at his home Sunday night aimed at kicking opposition to the planned changes up a notch by drafting the powerful Histadrut labor union into the cause.

Lapid and Histadrut chief Bar-David held a secret meeting at his home Sunday night to discuss the possibility of labor action against the government, Channel 13 news reported.

According to the report, Bar-David is seen as unlikely to wade into the political rumpus yet. It noted that he has yet to give attorneys in the state prosecutor’s office the go-ahead to declare a work dispute over proposed changes that would allow government ministers to ignore legal advice from government lawyers.

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