Lapid: Freeze judicial overhaul until 2025, or we won’t return to talks

Likud says it is ready to speak without preconditions — meaning it refuses to halt the process; Knesset begins recess of nearly 3 months this evening

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

Yesh Atid party head MK Yair Lapid addresses the Knesset plenum, July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesh Atid party head MK Yair Lapid addresses the Knesset plenum, July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid demanded on Sunday an 18-month freeze on legislation aimed at overhauling the judiciary as a condition for his Yesh Atid party to return to negotiations with the coalition on judicial reforms.

Lapid, speaking from the Knesset rostrum on the last day before summer recess, said that such a freeze must be cemented into law for his party to trust it.

Yesh Atid sources backed up Lapid’s assertion that this demand was in line with the type of guarantee he had asked from Likud last week amid frenzied, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to compromise ahead of the coalition passing its first judicial reform law.

“As long as there is no legislative freeze, there is no point and no sense to talk about other laws or agreements, because it is quite clear that the government will run away again at the last minute,” Lapid said to the Knesset.

Yesh Atid and fellow opposition party National Unity walked away from floundering compromise talks in June, alleging the coalition had acted in bad faith on a related issue: its efforts to avoid staffing and convening the committee that elects new judges, allegedly in a bid to wait until the composition of the panel could be changed in order to give the government more influence.

Netanyahu’s Likud party quickly slapped back at Lapid, saying that the opposition leader is “ready to talk with Abu Mazen,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, “without preconditions, but for Likud he is setting a list of preconditions for talks.”

Likud thus indicated it would not agree to halt the overhaul process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

“We invite Lapid to enter into negotiations today so that we can all reach a broad agreement,” the party continued in a statement.

Lapid reaffirmed his claim that Netanyahu had been near compromise last week, but then capitulated to pressure from Justice Minister Yariv Levin and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to scuttle a deal cobbled together by President Isaac Herzog.

“On Monday, both the president and I thought there was  an agreement ready to be signed. But then Yariv Levin and Ben Gvir slammed their fists on the table and threatened to dissolve the government. The prime minister panicked, surrendered to them, and the ‘reasonableness’ law was passed in the most extreme format possible,” Lapid charged.

Shortly after the law banning judicial review of the “reasonableness” of cabinet or ministerial decisions passed on Monday, Netanyahu opened the window for compromise until November, a month after the Knesset returns from recess. Netanyahu said he hopes to achieve broad consensus for his next tranche of judicial reforms.

Coalition lawmakers crowd around Justice Minister Yariv Levin to take a celebratory selfie in the Knesset plenum, as they pass the first of the coalition’s judicial overhaul laws, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid said that the 18-month freeze is necessary to “prove” that the government can be trusted. However, if agreements on certain laws are reached during that period, Lapid said it would be possible to pass them immediately.

Addressing the prime minister directly, Lapid said Netanyahu should codify a legislative freeze “for the good of the country,” which has been roiled by protests as hundreds of thousands of citizens have rallied for and against the overhaul, which seeks to weaken judicial checks on political power.

Although largely aligned with the opposition’s National Unity on strategy to counter the government’s judicial overhaul, Yesh Atid has started to diverge in recent days.

National Unity, headed by MK Benny Gantz, has consistently messaged an interest in broad consensus and has seemed at times more open to compromise than Lapid’s party.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on June July 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

In the latest sign of discord within the opposition, National Unity MK Michael Biton told Army Radio on Sunday that his faction could back Netanyahu’s coalition from the outside, to counterbalance the premier’s far-right partners.

“A unity government is not on the table, but maybe support from the outside,” he said.

“If Netanyahu brings good things to Israel we’ll back him from outside, but won’t join the government.”

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