Herzog said to float President’s Residence as forum for talks on judicial overhaul

TV report says president proposing 14-day pause on coalition’s legislative push to try to reach agreements

President Isaac Herzog speaks at conference in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
President Isaac Herzog speaks at conference in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

President Isaac Herzog has proposed to host talks aimed at hammering out a compromise plan to reform Israel’s judicial system, according to a Thursday report.

Channel 12 said the plan would see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition pausing its contentious legislative push to overhaul the judiciary as the negotiations are held.

It said Herzog had reached out in recent days to unspecified figures on the opposing sides to float a plan for facilitating talks, beginning with a 14-day pause on legislating the judicial shakeup. During that time, “unconditional” negotiations will be held at the President’s Residence by an agreed-upon team or committee.

In response to the report, Herzog’s office said the president “has been working for many weeks in an attempt to prevent a historic constitutional crisis and stop the deepening of the rift in the nation,” without denying the report.

“The President’s Residence today serves as a center for successful dialogue to preserve trust between the sides as a protected space amid the disagreement, while safeguarding the discretion of the participants,” his office said.

It added that Herzog has held meetings in recent weeks “with all sides of the map, including think tanks and other organizations, with the purpose of establishing a dialogue mechanism that will enable an end to the crisis while adhering to the foundational principles of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state — and safeguarding the unity of the nation.”

There was no comment from Netanyahu or Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is leading the judicial overhaul, though the television report cited unnamed sources close to them as saying they would not agree to stop work on the legislation but were open to dialogue.

The proposals presented by Levin earlier this month would sharply restrict the High Court’s capacity to annul laws and government decisions with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

Thursday’s report came after Channel 13 news reported Tuesday on a similar mediation effort by Herzog.

According to that report, Herzog proposed forming a team of jurists from both sides to begin a negotiation process and present an outline to Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, who agreed on the condition that the push for the judicial shake-up be halted “completely and immediately.” When Herzog relayed the condition to Netanyahu and Levin, they said no and the mediation process stalled, Channel 13 reported.

Herzog and others have urged the hardline Netanyahu government to negotiate over the contours of the overhaul plan.

Last week, the president issued a plea to Israel’s leadership to “show responsibility… take the time needed for this critical discussion,” and warned that the clash over the contentious judicial plans “could consume us all.”

“The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within. I’m saying to you loud and clear: This powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency.”

Herzog said that the government’s “dramatic reform, when done quickly without negotiation, rouses opposition and deep concerns among the public,” and urged the coalition to listen to Israel’s diverse communities.

“We need to strive for broad agreements,” said Herzog.

The judicial overhaul plans have drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts as well as weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, prominent economists, businesses, academics, the vaunted Israeli tech sector and others. Earlier this month, almost all former attorneys general and state attorneys since 1975 signed a letter decrying the government’s plans and warning that they “threaten to destroy the justice system.”

Last month, Hayut gave an extraordinarily fiery speech denouncing the Netanyahu government’s plans and warned the move would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic identity.

Hayut said that the sweeping changes to the legal system would fatally undermine judicial independence, give the Knesset a “blank check” to pass any legislation it pleases — even in violation of basic civil rights — and deny the courts the tools needed to serve as a check on executive power.

Levin lambasted Hayut’s speech, saying it underlined his arguments that the justice system has been politicized, and chastised her for violating ethics rules for serving judges.

Also Thursday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara sent a lengthy legal opinion to Levin opposing the sweeping plans, warning they would give the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character.

According to a statement by the Attorney General’s Office, Baharav-Miara told Levin that his legislation would “fundamentally change the democratic nature of the state’s governance.”

Baharav-Miara wrote in her paper that “such a dramatic process” should not be advanced without more thorough consultations and groundwork.

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