AG said to prevent PM addressing Herzog's compromise ideas

Justice minister offers talks on overhaul; opposition: Legislation must stop first

Justice minister, Knesset panel head overseeing bills say they are willing to start dialogue ‘without preconditions’; Lapid, Gantz say proposal disingenuous while process continues

Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid (L) speaks during a joint press conference with fellow opposition party head at the Knesset on February 13, 2023. Justice Minister Yariv Levin holds a press conference at the Knesset on January 4, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid (L) speaks during a joint press conference with fellow opposition party head at the Knesset on February 13, 2023. Justice Minister Yariv Levin holds a press conference at the Knesset on January 4, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Architects of the coalition’s efforts to significantly weaken the judiciary said Monday they were prepared to immediately meet with opposition leaders at President Isaac Herzog’s official residence in Jerusalem to discuss the latter’s compromise proposal for the judicial overhaul plan.

They made the offer after a turbulent day that saw some 90,000 people protest in Jerusalem, as well as scuffles and shouting matches in the Knesset, while the coalition pushed forward with the legislative process to bring its plans to fruition.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman said they were willing to meet without preconditions, but did not agree to the president’s call to pause the legislative efforts while talks were held.

Opposition leaders rejected this proposal, saying it was disingenuous to propose talks while moving full steam ahead with a process they see as ruinous to Israel’s democratic character.

The exchange came after legislation to give the government an automatic majority on the Judicial Selection Committee and render quasi-constitutional Basic Laws immune from judicial oversight was approved by the Knesset committee for its first reading in the Knesset plenum, likely to be held next Monday.

After moving the bills forward, Levin and Rothman had called on the opposition “to begin a dialogue without pre-conditions.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid pointed out that Herzog himself had called on Rothman to postpone approval of the legislation in committee in order to enter into good-faith dialogue over his proposals.

“As the president stressed yesterday and as has been explained time and again, the necessary condition to start a national dialogue is an immediate halt of all legislation processes for a designated period of time, during which talks will be held with the president’s mediation,” Lapid said in response to the invitation.

The head of the National Unity party Benny Gantz made similar comments, saying he had told the coalition officials that he would enter into dialogue immediately — if they pause the legislative process.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman and Justice Minister Yariv Levin shake hands at a committee hearing, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levin and Rothman retorted that they were “saddened to read the opposition leader’s statement,” which they said “signals that his only motivation is to stop the legislation and not to hold genuine dialogue.”

The two continued, saying “We would be happy to meet as early as tonight with any opposition official who is interested in real dialogue.”

Lapid responded, saying that “if Minister Levin and MK Rothman were serious about their offer they would agree to pause their legislation until the end of such dialogue and maybe even trouble [themselves] to inform the president and me of their offer instead of our hearing about it in the press.”

Also Monday, Hebrew media outlets reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers had approached Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to ask her for permission to publicly and directly address the judicial overhaul plan. But the reports said the request was rebuffed after several hours of discussion.

Netanyahu is bound by a conflict of interest agreement that the attorney general has said bars him from dealing in any way with the legal shakeup, since elements of it could directly impact the ongoing corruption trial against him.

Channel 12 news cited sources in Netanyahu’s Likud party who said that allowing the prime minister to publicly respond to and deal with Herzog’s compromise proposal, issued on Sunday, was necessary in order for that initiative to succeed.

President Isaac Herzog delivers a message to the nation from his office in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Earlier, Netanyahu accused opposition heads of “purposely pushing the country to anarchy.”

“The opposition is going wild in the Knesset,” he said. “Get a grip. Show responsibility and leadership,” he told opposition leaders, adding: “Most citizens of Israel don’t want anarchy. They want discourse that is focused, and in the end, they want unity.”

Some coalition lawmakers welcomed Herzog’s compromise proposal though, with an unnamed official in the ruling bloc telling the Haaretz daily that many of the president’s ideas could have been “agreed to yesterday.”

Haaretz also reported that Netanyahu met with Levin privately for hours on Monday evening after Herzog’s address. A source familiar with the details of the meeting said the pair discussed the president’s compromise proposal.

This may have amounted to a violation of the 2020 conflict of interest arrangement drafted by then attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, which barred the Likud leader from involvement in legislative initiatives that could impact his trial. Critics of the government’s judicial overhaul plans claim that its aim is to thwart the legal proceedings against Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s office later issued a denial of the Haaretz report, insisting that the prime minister is not involved in his government’s legal reform plans.

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