First negotiations after 3 turbulent months

Coalition, opposition hold first talks on judicial overhaul with President Herzog

Dialogue held in ‘positive atmosphere’; more opposition parties set to join Wednesday; many protest leaders urge Gantz, Lapid to withdraw because legislation has not been abandoned

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)
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)

Representatives from coalition and opposition parties gathered at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening to begin negotiations over the government’s contentious judicial overhaul plans, in the first face-to-face talks between the sides after three turbulent months of a legislative blitz and nationwide mass protests.

The negotiations came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday agreed to pause the controversial legislation, to give a chance for dialogue on the legislation that Justice Minister Yariv Levin publicly unveiled in January, triggering the wave of demonstrations and intense public opposition.

A statement from the President’s Office released after the 90-minute meeting said the discussions were conducted in “a positive atmosphere,” and that further meetings would be held on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s talks did not touch on the substance of potential reform, but rather focused on the mechanism for negotiations. Channel 12 reported that it was also aimed at fostering a friendly atmosphere more conducive to talks than the fiery, combative rhetoric the sides have employed against each other for weeks.

In a statement after the meeting, the opposition’s Yesh Atid party said that as Israel prepares to celebrate its 75th birthday, there is an opportunity “to make real change, not cosmetic fixes.” The party also reiterated its desire to establish a constitution “based on the values of the Declaration of Independence.”

The opposition National Unity faction said it had demanded the basic principles of keeping the justice system apolitical and setting clear rules for future legislation. It said it had come to talks “with an open heart” and urged the coalition to do the same.

The meeting included a delegation representing Likud and teams for the Yesh Atid and National Unity parties. Other opposition parties, Yisrael Beytenu and Labor, skipped Tuesday’s meeting as they continued to express doubts that Likud was seeking to negotiate in good faith, but indicated they could send their own teams soon.

Yesh Atid’s delegation was made up of MKs Orna Barbivai and Karin Elharrar, former Prime Minister’s Office director general Naama Schultz and lawyer Oded Gazit, while National Unity sent MKs Chili Tropper, Gideon Sa’ar, Orit Farkash-Hacohen and attorney Ronen Aviana.

Likud’s team was made up of Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, Kohelet Policy Forum legal scholar Aviad Bakshi, Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs and academic Talia Einhorn.

Some of those in favor of Likud’s proposed overhaul and against any compromise gathered to protest outside the President’s Residence, while others who believe the plan must be thrown out entirely also continued to rally amid the talks.

Israelis block the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul on March 23, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

As discussions were underway in Jerusalem, a collection of 34 protest groups penned a joint letter to opposition heads Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, imploring the pair to withdraw from the talks that they said were a “deception.”

“Yesterday we saw another attempt at deception and public manipulation by a leader who has lost his inhibitions and is not fit to lead the country,” the letter said, referring to Netanyahu.

In the letter, the groups claimed that Netanyahu was using the legislative pause as a tactic to diffuse the massive protest movement that has gathered to oppose his government’s plans, claiming that upon the start of the next Knesset session in May, the premier will “immediately” resume pushing his “dictatorship laws.”

“We will not fall for this deception and will continue to fight with all our strength.”

The negotiations’ outcome “does not represent us,” the letter declared, saying Lapid and Gantz’s agreement to hold talks despite the legislation not being shelved entirely was “shocking and outrageous.”

Organizers encouraged opponents of the overhaul to continue attending weekly protests in Tel Aviv.

The groups also panned Lapid and Gantz for not opposing the prime minister’s agreement with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to advance plans for the formation of a “national guard” force under the far-right minister’s direct control, which they have warned could serve as the far-right minister’s private militia.

Yisrael Beytenu, led by MK Avigdor Liberman, said it would join the discussions on condition that Netanyahu walks back the submission of the judicial selection bill to the Knesset secretary, a largely technical move that nevertheless sparked outrage on Tuesday.

Filing the bill with the Knesset secretary enables the coalition to call the final votes on its approval with 24 hours’ notice, a move Yisrael Beytenu described as “unacceptable.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a pre-Passover toast at his office in Jerusalem on March 28, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“We call on our friends in the opposition not to be tempted by Netanyahu’s deceitful and fraudulent practices,” the statement said.

Labor said it was joining the discussion to “ensure that the overhaul laws are not returned to a vote in the Knesset via a back door.”

“Labor representatives will attend meetings at the President’s Residence to ensure that the camp’s position is heard and, among other things, they will demand the removal of existing legislation, promote a bill of rights, strengthen the Knesset’s position, and guarantee the independence of the judicial system,” a statement said.

The left-wing party chaired by MK Merav Michaeli said it would be represented at the discussions by MK Gilad Kariv, MK Efrat Rayten, former justice minister Avi Nissenkorn and Dr. Tamar Hostovsky Brandes.

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