Herzog urges opposing sides of overhaul to give talks a chance despite mistrust

Hailing the right-wing demonstrators who support the judicial shakeup, Netanyahu says possible to reach broad consensus ‘if there is goodwill on the other sides’

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)

President Isaac Herzog on Friday urged the coalition and opposition to give negotiations he’s hosting on the government’s contentious judicial overhaul a chance to succeed, despite the lack of trust and animosity between the sides.

“I am aware that the walls of suspicion are high. I know that unfortunately there is hostility and mistrust,” Herzog said in a statement. “But it is important that we take a deep breath, look at the reality and give the negotiation process a real chance. Our country is dear to all of us.”

Herzog’s office hosted two days of talks earlier this week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed Monday to temporarily halt the government’s push to upend the judicial system following widespread protests, which peaked after he fired his defense minister who warned about the security implications of the coalition’s proposals.

The first two days of meetings were focused on establishing a mechanism for the negotiations and did not get into specific proposals for judicial reform.

Even in determining a format for the talks, the sides made little progress and the pace has been slower than expected, according to the Israel Hayom daily, which cited sources involved in the process.

The report said the coalition representatives were more involved than the opposition in earlier talks held by Herzog — which resulted in him unveiling his own alternative judicial reform proposal earlier this month — contributing to the large gap in the sides’ positions. While opposition leaders expressed support for the proposal, which was dismissed by the coalition, the former’s representatives want to return to square one in the talks and some are even pushing for discussions on crafting a constitution.

However, the coalition wants the talks to just address specific legislative proposals that it has already introduced, which are non-starters for many in the opposition,  the newspaper said.

In this handout photo, President Isaac Herzog meets with representatives of the Ra’am party at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 29, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The atmosphere has already gotten testy, with coalition lawmakers on Thursday railing against the opposition National Unity MK Chili Tropper after he insisted in media interviews that the government would not be granted the exclusive right to appoint judges to the top court.

This led Justice Minister Yariv Levin to accuse him of seeking to “blow up the talks and set the country on fire.”

The pair later spoke on the phone and agreed to tamp down the invective despite their disagreements. Levin and Tropper said after speaking that while they remained at odds on the issues, they have “mended fences” personally.

The makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee — which currently divides power between politicians and justices to decide on new judicial appointments, including to the Supreme Court — is one of the most contentious parts of the overhaul.

The coalition has almost completed legislating a bill that would heavily politicize the committee and give it control over most judicial appointments.

Roughly two dozen negotiators are participating in the discussion, with a team of Likud representatives attending on the coalition’s behalf while the Yesh Atid, National Unity, Labor and Ra’am opposition parties each sent their own teams of negotiators. Members of the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al alliance party met with Herzog and told him they have “no trust” in the pause declared by Netanyahu, citing “past experience.”

Other opposition representatives have expressed similar grievances regarding Netanyahu and said they will continue supporting the anti-overhaul protests while still being prepared to give the negotiations a chance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the nation, March 27, 2023. (GPO Screenshot)

In a video statement Friday, Netanyahu said he backed the negotiations under Herzog’s office aimed at reaching a compromise.

“I think we need to make the effort to reach a broad national consensus, and if there is goodwill on the other sides, we can succeed,” he said.

He also hailed the tens of thousands of right-wingers who took to the streets twice in the past week for protests in support of the overhaul. Several hundred of the protesters were filmed chanting racist slogans against Arabs, with some of them attacking Arab passers-by and harassing journalists.

Also Friday, hundreds of anti-overhaul demonstrators picketed outside the homes of Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter and MK David Bitan — all of Likud — seeking to exert additional pressure on them.

Over one hundred people also gathered outside the home of National Unity chair Benny Gantz, who has been the most vocal opposition lawmaker in favor of compromise with the coalition. The protesters urged him not to do so, chanting slogans such as, “you have no mandate to compromise on democracy.”

Dozens also protested against the overhaul at Ben Gurion Airport, holding up signs that read, “welcome to the dictatorship.”

Additional demonstrations were slated to take place at the homes of other Likud members later in the day, including Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, MK Danny Danon and MK Yuli Edelstein.

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