'Greatest national crisis in the history of the country'

Lapid seeks 60-day overhaul pause for talks; protesters call Knesset rally next week

Opposition head says halt would enable president to facilitate dialogue on judicial reform; coalition delays some private bills but presses ‘full speed ahead’ with main proposals

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

Opposition leader Yair Lapid in the assembly hall of the Knesset, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition leader Yair Lapid in the assembly hall of the Knesset, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid demanded Wednesday that the government halt the progress of its judicial overhaul legislation for a period of 60 days in order to enable dialogue with opposition parties, a move that is expected to be rebuffed by the coalition.

At the same time, leaders of the protests against the government’s plan announced that with the legislation moving full steam ahead, they would hold another nationwide strike and mass protest outside the Knesset next Monday.

Lapid’s statement came a day after he met with President Isaac Herzog to discuss the latter’s proposal for negotiations. National Unity party head Benny Gantz and one of the coalition’s reform architects, Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee chair Simcha Rothman, also met Herzog, each one separately.

The president has suggested a five-point plan for reaching a broad agreement on justice reform.

Yesh Atid party chief Lapid said that the “starting point” for dialogue must be the coalition announcing a 60-day waiting period before bringing its first judicial reform bill for its first reading, currently slated for next Monday.

This would “allow the president to lead the process” of negotiation, Lapid added, in a speech delivered from the Knesset floor. Representatives for the Yesh Atid leader and for Herzog confirmed that the timeline originated with Lapid and not the president.

Led by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Rothman, the coalition is running a full-court press to push through a slate of reforms to the judiciary, focusing on increasing political power at the judicial system’s expense, as well as constraining the Supreme Court’s tools for judicial oversight. All parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing, far-right, and religious government are aligned on pushing through changes to “rebalance power among authorities,” albeit for a variety of reasons. Top jurists and numerous public figures warn they will harm democracy and the rule of law, and can endanger civil liberties.

“We have been waiting for 74 years,” since Israel established its sovereignty, Lapid said. “Nothing will happen if it takes a few more weeks, thanks to which we will save the people of Israel from a terrible crisis.”

He said the current process and the mass protests and professional criticism it has drawn are widening the cracks in Israeli society.

Earlier Wednesday, the coalition pulled two of its reform bills from the day’s Knesset plenum agenda, delaying them to an unspecified later date, and prompting optimism in some quarters about a potential breakthrough en route to dialogue.

But Levin and Rothman said in a joint statement that the votes that were postponed relate to privately submitted bills withdrawn at their authors’ decision, which are not part of the main overhaul package being discussed in the committee. “The legislation of the judicial reform is continuing without pause,” Levin and Rothman said, adding that the committee would continue its work on Sunday as planned.

The first phase of the overhaul, a bill to put judicial appointments firmly under government control and to block the Supreme Court from exercising oversight over Basic Laws, is still scheduled for its first reading on Monday as planned, they said.

One of the pulled bills would end the High Court of Justice’s ability to review ministerial appointments using the test of “reasonableness” — a Shas party-sponsored move aimed at barring the court from blocking its party head Aryeh Deri’s return as a minister. The second pulled bill, backed by Rothman, would enable the Knesset to pass legislation that is entirely immune to judicial review by the High Court.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid delivers a speech at the Knesset, February 15, 2023.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The very idea that we are one people is in danger,” he added, saying that polarization, economic pressure and security concerns tied to the government’s single-minded focus on the sweeping changes have placed Israel “in an emergency situation.

“We are in the midst of the greatest national crisis in the history of the country.”

While unlikely to be accepted, the legislative timeout would functionally push the contentious reform into the next legislative session, as the Knesset is on pause for the majority of April.

Rothman called the request to pause the reform “rude” and said it was “spitting in the face of two million right-wing voters.”

“It won’t happen. We are continuing with the judicial plan, full speed ahead,” he wrote on his personal Telegram channel.

With falling trust in the judicial system, many politicians agree that there is room to reform the judiciary, but disagree on the level of rebalancing of power between political and judicial authorities, as well as the speed with which the coalition is currently steamrolling it through Knesset.

Critics of the coalition plan say it provides the ruling government ultimate power, with no recourse for claims that certain legislation or actions by the government harm citizens’ basic rights.

Lapid had approached Herzog weeks ago asking him to lead an independent process to develop recommendations for a balanced reform, and the president publicly offered to take up the mantle on Sunday, provided the coalition would take a timeout from its race to the legislative finish line.

The coalition has ostensibly accepted Herzog’s offer but has refused to pause its race to get the bills passed.

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

Speaking in the Knesset, Lapid laid out what a reform process headed by Herzog could look like. Herzog could assemble and head a professional team, including members of leading think tanks and academics. Among the think tanks and policy shops to be included, Lapid cited the Kohelet Policy Forum, which has been deeply involved in writing Rothman’s judicial reform bills, as well as the Israel Democracy Institute, which has lambasted many of the proposals. The opposition leader also suggested including the Jewish People Policy Institute and the Tachlith Institute.

These experts would form a position paper, also based on consultations with key stakeholders like the Bank of Israel, the chief economist of the Finance Ministry, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, and other security establishment heads, “in order to prevent a situation in which the legislation will cause economic and security damage.”

The president would then consult representatives from the judicial system, including the Supreme Court president, current and former Supreme Court justices, and the attorney general.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman arguing during a committee hearing, February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finally, Lapid said, the president would conduct “separate” consultations with coalition and opposition heads to share their comments on the working position paper.

At the conclusion of this consultation process, the revised proposal would be presented to the public for review, and then come back to joint consultations between Herzog and cross-Knesset politicians “to hold continuous negotiations through mediation that will lead to a real, agreed-upon reform that will not dismantle democracy and the separation of powers, but will strengthen it.”

In an interview after Lapid spoke, Rothman reiterated he would not push off the legislation, dismissing the opposition leader’s call for a 60-day pause.

“We could speak for an entire podcast about the dream world that Lapid is living in,” Rothman told the Kan public broadcaster.

Rothman has been strongly pushing back on criticism of his proposals and on Tuesday held a question-and-answer session with Facebook users to address them. He was joined by the head of his Religious Zionism party, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who was asked who will ensure human rights are respected under the planned overhaul.

“I promise,” said Smotrich, who has long been staunch in his far-right views. “I, the finance minister of the State of Israel, promise not to harm human rights.”

Meanwhile, organizers of the mass protests against the proposed transformation of the judiciary urged the opposition not to enter any talks over the contentious reforms until all legislative efforts to pass them were “completely withdrawn,” as they called for another rally outside the Knesset next week.

“With the sprint towards a dictatorship, we are forced to expand the civil resistance to this regime coup,” they said in a statement Wednesday.

On Monday, tens of thousands of people protested in Jerusalem as the Rothman-led Knesset law committee approved sending the first bill to the plenum for a first reading.

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