Herzog urges progress at overhaul talks as sources indicate little movement

‘It’s money time’: President pushes parties to get serious about finding compromise solution; debate expected to heat up in June, after state budget passes

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

President Isaac Herzog hosts an event recognizing outstanding soldiers as part of Israel's 75th Independence Day celebrations, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, April 26, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Isaac Herzog hosts an event recognizing outstanding soldiers as part of Israel's 75th Independence Day celebrations, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, April 26, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Negotiators working to find a cross-partisan consensus on reform to Israel’s judiciary received a surprise guest on Tuesday: President Isaac Herzog, whose official residence has hosted talks between the coalition and opposition over the past six weeks but who himself has stepped back from facilitating the process, interrupted the closed discussions to urge a breakthrough.

“It’s money time,” the president told assembled negotiators, according to his office.

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.

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 amid societal upheaval, to allow time for negotiations.

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.

National Unity leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on April 19, 2023. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

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. On Monday, 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.

Sources close to the issue said that refusing to appoint the selection panel, or not electing an opposition lawmaker to the body, may broadcast an unwillingness to reach a compromise and threaten negotiations.

Coalition weight is focused on securing influence over judicial appointments, while the opposition is similarly fixated on thwarting any move that could increase political sway over sitting judges. With the various parts of the judicial puzzle expected to only be sold as a complete, negotiated package, the continued entrenchment of positions has dampened the optimism of some involved.

And pressure is mounting outside the President’s Residence as well.

On Monday, 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. Fellow architect Justice Minister Yariv 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.

Protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv, on May 13, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel’s judicial shakeup is expected to return to the political fore once the state budget passes at the end of May.

Speaking at the Knesset on Monday, opposition party chiefs Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz both said they wanted to continue with negotiations, but said they must soon make progress in order to keep their parties involved.

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, amid 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’ve long desired.

President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Prize awards ceremony in Jerusalem, April 26, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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 19 weeks have similarly expressed their distrust in the negotiations process.

Heating the political crucible, the Finance Ministry on Tuesday cut its economic growth forecasts for 2023 and 2024, citing a slowdown in tax revenue and a deep drop in investments in the local high-tech sector in the first quarter of this year, which it said was partly due to the global economy and a high interest rate environment and partly due to the market uncertainty surrounding the proposed judicial changes.

“The more the legal reform is perceived by the market as harmful to the strength of the independence of state institutions, in particular to the judicial system and to the checks and balances between the authorities, and increases uncertainty, the more it is expected to significantly harm growth and economic activity in the economy, and in particular in foreign investments,” the Finance Ministry’s chief economist Shira Greenberg wrote in a macroeconomic update.

Sharon Wrobel contributed to this report.

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