Appointments law readied for final vote in 'technical' move

Herzog phones PM, Gantz, Lapid to launch talks on compromise after overhaul paused

President urges party leaders to establish negotiating teams for sessions at his residence; Gantz quickly answers call, reaches out to Netanyahu to thank him for halting overhaul

President Isaac Herzog at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Isaac Herzog at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

President Isaac Herzog phoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition party leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz late Monday, urging them to start an “immediate negotiation process” under the auspices of his office to reach a compromise agreement on judicial reform, after the premier agreed to temporarily halt the coalition’s effort to politicize and radically constrain the judiciary.

The president requested that each side establish negotiating teams so that talks could begin, Herzog’s office said. Gantz quickly heeded the call, announcing that he had tapped MK Gideon Sa’ar, MK Chili Tropper, MK Orit Farkash-Hacohen, and a lawyer, Ronen Aviani with leading the talks on behalf of his National Unity party. Sa’ar is a former justice minister.

Yair Lapid announced his Yesh Atid party’s negotiating team Tuesday morning, comprising MK Orna Barbivai, MK Karin Elharrar, former Prime Minister’s Office director general Naama Schultz, and lawyer Oded Gazit.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a key proponent of the overhaul, implied to Army Radio on Tuesday that his party would not be sending a team in parallel to one sponsored by Netanyahu’s Likud, although coalition negotiators have yet to be announced.

Despite Netanyahu’s promise to pause legislation, the coalition on Tuesday submitted its contentious judicial appointments bill for its final votes, which would enable it to bring the bill for its full Knesset approval at any time.

The Knesset secretary told the Ynet news site that the move to file the bill — which would give the coalition near-total control over the appointment of Israel’s judges — was “technical,” but Yesh Atid negotiator Barbivai attacked it as negotiating “with a gun to the head.”

Barbivai also told Army Radio that she would continue to attend anti-overhaul protests, despite the ongoing negotiations, and she said she hoped for a negotiated solution but could not guarantee that outcome.

This will be the second time Herzog will be overseeing negotiations on judicial reform in recent weeks. The first round failed to bear fruit, as the coalition refused to halt its legislation to overhaul the judiciary while it was taking place and instantly rejected the proposal that was unveiled by Herzog two weeks ago. The first round did not include formal representatives from either side, with the president instead largely relying on a team of academic experts who consulted with the coalition and the opposition.

Gantz phoned Netanyahu after his speech announcing the temporary suspension of the coalition’s legislative blitz, praising the premier for his decision and expressing his willingness to hold good-faith negotiations to reach a compromise.

Netanyahu gave Gantz a shout-out during his prime-time Monday address, saying he had read the letter that the National Unity chairman wrote to coalition members a day earlier in which he urged them to halt their legislation to allow for negotiations toward a compromise that will have broad public buy-in.

A poll released on Monday evening showed the pragmatic, centrist Gantz garnering significant public support at the expense of Netanyahu’s Likud.

Yair Lapid (L), Benny Gantz (C) and Benjamin Netanyahu (R) (Flash90)

Also during their call, Gantz urged Netanyahu to reconsider the dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who on Saturday called to suspend the judicial overhaul and reach a compromise, warning that the societal rift it has caused is impacting the military’s operational capacity. Netanyahu’s announcement that he had decided to fire Gallant prompted mass, spontaneous demonstrations nationwide late Sunday.

After immense public pressure that has seen 12 weeks of massive demonstrations, and, on Monday, the announcement of general strikes by the country’s top labor federation and local councils, the prime minister said Monday evening that he was allowing for “a delay” to provide “ a real opportunity for real dialogue,” but stressed that “either way,” a reform would be passed to “restore the balance” that he said had been lost between the branches of government in Israel.

Although declaring that he sought to avoid dividing the nation, Netanyahu decried elements of the protest movement as violent “extremists” who wanted to tear the nation apart and insinuated that supporters of the right-wing, religious government are treated as second-class citizens.

It was not clear Monday night whether Netanyahu intended to reverse the removal of Gallant, who had not yet been served a letter of dismissal. Netanyahu made no mention of Gallant in his speech.

Gantz welcomed the legislative pause in his own video statement after Netanyahu’s speech, saying he would enter into negotiations at the President’s Residence “with an open heart, not to defeat, but to agree.”

Gantz promised to hear the concerns of the overhaul’s proponents and said he aimed to “improve governability and checks and balances,” and would not compromise on basic democratic foundations and on a comprehensive quasi-constitutional Basic Law laying down clear authorities and limits on legislation and the ability to strike it down.

Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks to the media at the Knesset, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He addressed supporters of the legislation: “You’re my brothers. I intend to act as a leader who sees everyone. We didn’t have to reach this moment. I oppose this government and will continue to do so, but on national security will support every correct move with a whole heart.

In his response speech shortly thereafter, Lapid expressed doubt about the genuineness of Netanyahu’s delay, saying dialogue for an agreed reform must end with a constitution.

“If the legislation really does stop, genuinely and totally, we are ready to start a genuine dialogue at the President’s Residence,” Lapid said.

“We need to sit together and write the Israeli constitution based on the values of the Declaration of Independence. We need to let the president determine a mechanism for the dialogue and trust him to be a fair mediator.”

“We‘ve had a bad experience [with Netanyahu] in the past and so first, we’ll make sure that there are no tricks or bluffing here. We heard with concern yesterday the reports that Netanyahu told the people close to him that he isn’t really stopping, just trying to calm the situation,” Lapid added.

“If he tries anything, he’ll find hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis who are committed to fighting for our democracy standing opposite him, committed to being the fortification that protects the country and its democracy.

“On the other hand, if the government engages in a real and fair dialogue, we can come out of this moment of crisis — stronger and more united.”

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