Direct negotiations over judicial reform paused as lawmakers focus on budget votes

Without any clear progress made in the two months since discussions began, President Isaac Herzog’s staff set to hold ‘intensive’ meetings with each side separately this week

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)

Direct negotiations between coalition and opposition representatives over the government’s judicial overhaul plan will not take place this week, President Isaac Herzog’s office confirmed on Sunday.

According to the President’s Residence, which has brokered the talks, the postponement was requested by both sides, due to an overcrowded legislative agenda this week, which includes intense debates and voting sessions on the state budget.

Instead of the planned direct talks, the president’s staff will conduct separate, intensive meetings with representatives from each side throughout the week, the statement noted.

The direct meetings are slated to renew next week.

Despite nearly two months of ongoing talks between teams representing the coalition and the opposition’s two biggest parties, no tangible progress has been made, according to sources close to the issue.

On Saturday, demonstrations against the judicial overhaul entered their 20th week, although the protests’ messaging shifted towards opposition to the state budget, claiming that it “plunders the public coffers.”

Demonstrators light flares during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on May 20, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Rallies were held in about 150 locations, a week after the protests were downsized due to the threat of rocket fire from Gaza as Israel battled the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.

Hebrew media estimated that between 90,000 and 100,000 attended the main rally on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, and that the total figure was around 150,000 nationwide — markedly down from before the fighting, which had been around 200,000-300,000. Protest organizers claimed far bigger numbers for Saturday, saying 135,000 had protested in Tel Aviv and another 150,000 in the rest of the country.

Many of the protesters urged opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Benny Gantz’s National Unity party to walk away from compromise talks with the coalition, which have been taking place since the beginning of last month. Both opposition parties insisted this week that there had been no breakthroughs in the talks, contradicting reports of progress in several Hebrew media outlets.

Pressure also exists within the opposition to ditch the talks, with Yisrael Beytenu calling on Lapid and Gantz to walk out and not provide a fig leaf to the coalition’s march towards an overhaul. Some of the protest groups that have arisen as demonstrations against the overhaul swept the nation over the past 20 weeks have similarly expressed their distrust in the negotiations process.

Since Justice Minister Yariv Levin first announced in January his plan to sap judicial checks on political power, the judicial overhaul has become Israel’s biggest political, economic, and social lightning rod. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a pause to the legislation in late March, given societal upheaval, to allow time for negotiations.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin at a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul outside the Knesset on April 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Parties to the talks have discussed the major threads of Levin and the coalition’s shakeup plan, among them transferring judicial appointments to political or coalition control; creating a mechanism for the Knesset to override Supreme Court judicial review; constraining the court’s ability to exercise judiciary review; blocking the court from reviewing ministerial appointments; and limiting the power of ministry legal advisers.

Levin’s priority is for the government to wrest control of judicial appointments, currently done through a selection panel that balances political and professional votes for the top court. Opposition parties are adamant that “politicization of the judiciary” is a red line.

The Knesset is expected next month to elect two lawmaker representatives to the selection committee, which has not yet convened since Netanyahu’s government took power in December. Last week Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs — also a member of the coalition’s negotiating team — threatened that the coalition could push through two representatives from its own camp, rather than splitting the job with the opposition as is customary.

MK Simcha Rotman attends an Economic Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 8, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also last week, one of the coalition’s judicial overhaul champions, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, said that the government may soon unilaterally advance changes, without specifying further. Meanwhile, Levin is said to be demanding that coalition control over judicial appointments be approved by the close of the Knesset’s summer session at the end of July, while threatening to quit if it is not.

While no party has set a deadline, political pressure is expected to increase on both sides of the aisle if no agreement is reached by the close of summer session. There is already considerable pressure on Netanyahu from within his coalition ranks to move forward with redrawing judicial and political power lines, in light of recognition by far-right and ideological forces that their current political constellation is likely their surest chance to pass some of the sweeping changes they have long desired.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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