Lapid to ultra-Orthodox: 'No one is conspiring against you'

Gantz: No progress in talks with government on judicial reform compromise

At weekly faction meetings, opposition leaders urge Haredi community to embrace national service or risk deepening an ‘open wound’ in society

Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset, on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90 )
Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset, on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90 )

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said Monday that negotiations being mediated by President Isaac Herzog to reach an agreement on the government’s planned judicial overhaul have not borne fruit so far.

“The negotiations aren’t progressing at all on any issue, particularly not that of the Judicial Selection Committee,” Gantz said at his party’s faction meeting in the Knesset. He was referring to the coalition’s highly contentious effort to assert governmental control over the selection of judges.

“We will not allow politicians to control the appointment of judges because this amounts to political judges,” Gantz said, vowing his party will not compromise on that issue.

He added that the negotiations over the judicial reforms cannot continue indefinitely, although he did not put a deadline on them.

Party factions held their first weekly meetings Monday after the Knesset reconvened for its spring session following a month of recess. During the parliamentary break, opposition and coalition parties have held talks on the government’s planned drastic overhaul of the judiciary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paused the legislation at the end of the previous session a month ago, saying he was doing so to allow time for talks, amid countrywide protests by hundreds of thousands of Israelis who said the legislation would destroy Israeli democracy by removing critical checks on the power of the executive.

Protests against the overhaul have continued throughout the past month nonetheless, while government supporters also held a massive rally in Jerusalem last week. Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

At the Likud faction meeting, MK Tally Gotliv declared that because overhaul legislation had been paused to hold negotiations, the entire plan had effectively been stopped, according to Hebrew media reports.

“We failed and we need to fix it and say what’s going on with it,” Gotliv told her fellow Likud lawmakers, adding that the overhaul is not on the agenda and “will not happen.”

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev responded, “Why are you saying that?”

“The reform is dead,” retorted Gotliv.

The state of negotiations

There have been five separate meetings of the coalition and opposition negotiation teams at the President’s Residence.

Most major issues have been under discussion, including changes to the Judicial Selection Committee; passing a Basic Law: Legislation to give Basic Laws constitutional status; anchoring fundamental democratic rights in law; changes to the status of government legal advisers; and the use of the reasonableness test by the Supreme Court. The central issue of a clause enabling the Knesset to override court rulings has yet to be discussed.

Having all issues on the table at once was a key demand of the opposition negotiations teams, comprising Yesh Atid and National Unity representatives, in order to avoid any attempt by the coalition to pass the reforms piecemeal.

An opposition source familiar with the negotiations said on Monday, like Gantz, that little had been agreed upon during the last month of negotiations. There had been a general agreement between the two sides to anchor fundamental democratic rights in law, but not which specific rights and how that should be achieved, the source said.

According to the source, the coalition negotiation team is somewhat split between the more moderate inclinations of Netanyahu ally Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and the ideological demands of Aviad Bakshi, head of the legal department of the conservative Kohelet Policy Forum think tank, which helped formulate the government’s original judicial overhaul legislation.

The source said that Dermer was interested in achieving a broad, long-term agreement on the major issues of legal and judicial reform, and understood the problems that would be caused by the original legislation in terms of damage to the economy, diplomatic standing and the alliance with the US.

Bakshi, on the other hand, has insisted on significant changes to the Judicial Selection Committee, in particular allowing the coalition to appoint two Supreme Court justices in the current Knesset term, as well as choosing the new Supreme Court president once current president Esther Hayut retires in October. The Supreme Court president has substantial powers within the court, including determining the composition of judicial panels for the different cases before the court.

Bakshi is also insisting on legislation requiring a large majority of a Supreme Court bench to disqualify Knesset legislation. That stipulation, along with control over the selection of the Supreme Court president, would create severe obstacles for the court to invalidate legislation.

The Haredi draft

Gantz also spoke about military conscription for the ultra-Orthodox, a large majority of whom currently obtains exemptions. The issue of Haredi participation in the national civil burden, while a secondary issue, has also gained steam among demonstrators during the months-long protests.

Netanyahu needs the two ultra-Orthodox coalition parties to maintain his parliamentary majority and those factions are pressuring the government to pass a new law codifying blanket exemptions from IDF service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

“The service issue in the State of Israel must be resolved,” Gantz said in remarks also directed at Arab citizens, who do not have compulsory service like their Jewish counterparts.

“The wound that service discrimination creates in Israeli society is deepening, threatening our resilience and security,” Gantz said. “Therefore, I am appealing from here to the prime minister, and especially to the members of the Knesset and the ultra-Orthodox and Arab public leaders… we need to hold a dialogue between all parts of society on this important national issue as well, before it is too late.”

At his own faction meeting, Yesh Atid chairman and leader of the opposition Yair Lapid chastised the ultra-Orthodox community over the military service exemptions, saying its use of political power to avoid serving in the IDF and to increase the stipends for full-time yeshiva students was unacceptable.

“This is an open wound. It cannot be that our children serve the state, endanger their lives, and you say ‘This doesn’t interest us, we have political power and we will use it to release our children [from military service] and at the same time increase [yeshiva] stipends,’” Lapid said, addressing the ultra-Orthodox community in general.

“We have a joint fate and Israeli society needs a new social contract. No one is conspiring against you [the ultra-Orthodox]. What we are offering you is exactly what we are offering our own children,” he said.

Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At his own faction meeting, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said the coalition will “eliminate the Zionist project” if it passes the law granting blanket exemptions from IDF military service.

He said that the only acceptable model is for the full enlistment of all Israeli males with no exemptions, either to the IDF or national service.

“The era of suckers has ended. The situation can’t continue where those who serve, do reserve duty, work, pay taxes, defend us, also pay for the idlers and draft dodgers,” he said.

Liberman warned the demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox community will, within several decades, leave Israel socially splintered “like Lebanon, with different tribes who have different interests, and fight amongst each other.”

Liberman has long championed universal military or national service. During his tenure as defense minister he proposed a plan for very gradual increases in ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the IDF.

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Reports Sunday said that ultra-Orthodox parties have backed down from their demand that the blanket draft exemption bill be passed before the state budget. The budget must pass by the end of May or the government will face dissolution.

The Haredi parties reportedly agreed that passing the budget and ensuring the stability of the government is the best way for them to eventually pass such legislation later this year.

Netanyahu reportedly told Haredi party leaders that he doesn’t believe it’s currently possible to advance the legislation.

“I don’t have any desire to get into new public disputes at this stage,” he was quoted as saying by the Walla news site.

Most Popular
read more: