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Lapid: President considering my idea to set up panel for ‘balanced’ judicial reform

Herzog confirms interaction ‘with all relevant actors’ in bid to avert ‘historic constitutional crisis’ over coalition’s overhaul plan; Gantz says mass protests having an impact

File: Then prime minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog (left) at a memorial service marking 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
File: Then prime minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog (left) at a memorial service marking 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid said Monday he has urged President Isaac Herzog to set up a commission to come up with a “balanced” judicial reform — as opposed to the government’s planned radical overhaul — and that the president is considering the idea.

Herzog confirmed talking with Lapid as part of his ongoing efforts to avert “a historic constitutional crisis” over the coalition’s proposals, which would dramatically limit the powers of the judiciary and place almost all power in the hands of the political majority.

Speaking at a meeting of his Yesh Atid faction in the Knesset, Lapid said he had “proposed to President Herzog that he form a presidential committee to offer a balanced and reasonable recommendation to improve the judicial system and find the proper balance between the legislative and judicial branches.”

Lapid said Herzog was “considering the proposal” and that he expected such a panel would be established. “I hope and believe the committee will be formed and will prevent the destruction of our democracy and the terrible division among the people of Israel,” Lapid said.

In a statement confirming his interactions with Lapid and others, Herzog’s office added: “The president continues his ceaseless efforts with all relevant actors in a bid to create a wide-ranging respectful dialogue in the hope of reaching a broad understanding.”

As presented by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the coalition’s proposals would severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid’s initiative drew some criticism from fellow members of the opposition.

Labor chairwoman Merav Michaeli slammed Lapid for what she said was a concession to Netanyahu and his government’s planned reforms.

“Making offers to Netanyahu, be it directly or indirectly through a mediator, is caving in,” she said.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman said that “there is no room for compromise on the issue.”

Lapid, in turn, defended his actions by denying any attempt at reaching a compromise with the coalition. He said his initiative was about forming a committee that would distance the government from the issue.

The government is said to be seeking to push the changes through the Knesset and into law in the next two months. Levin has called the proposals “the first stage” of his planned reforms; further changes with additional ramifications would reportedly be enacted at a later stage.

Levin’s proposals have drawn intense criticism, even from longtime proponents of judicial reform, and have sparked weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, private companies and other bodies. Over 100,000 people demonstrated against the overhaul in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, with thousands more at other demonstrations including in Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba.

Advocates of the shakeup, which is firmly backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, say the court is overly interventionist and subverts the will of the electorate.

Last Wednesday, the High Court ruled that Netanyahu could not return Shas leader Aryeh Deri to ministerial office — citing Deri’s multiple convictions and recent apparent deception of a lower court — requiring the prime minister to fire him on Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Shas party faction meeting at the Knesset, with Shas leader Aryeh Deri seated at his side, on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, Netanyahu and other coalition chiefs attended the Shas party’s weekly Knesset faction meeting, at which Netanyahu reiterated that he was seeking a way to “return Aryeh to his appropriate place… as soon as possible.”

“Harm has been done to the principle of the will of the majority, and we must fix this,” Netanyahu said, pledging to restore Deri to the cabinet table and saying it was just “for right now” that Deri isn’t a minister.

“It’s the wrong decision… that coerced us into a situation in which Aryeh Deri is not leading as a minister in the government,” Netanyahu said.

The premier connected Deri’s dismissal to the broader fight against the judiciary, saying his government was facing “a flood of false propaganda” against its sweeping reform plans, “but we won’t let them win.”

“We haven’t come to end democracy,” he said. “We’ve come to save democracy. What is democracy? Rule of the majority and respect for individual rights.” He added that the way to ensure that the majority respects individual rights is an appropriate balance between the three branches of government. “This balance has been violated in recent years,” he argued.

Deri attacked the judicial system for not giving the government an earlier indication that his ministerial appointments would be shot down.

“No one warned the prime minister that he was working under an ‘extreme lack of reasonableness,'” Deri charged, referencing the High Court’s basis for disqualifying him, despite the fact that his appointments were “discussed for a full month.”

Meanwhile, National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz told his party’s faction meeting that the mass protests against the government were having a real effect and leading coalition officials to reconsider the overhaul.

Gantz said he was seeing “the enormous impact of the public outcry and demonstrations, and I’m starting to hear voices from among coalition officials who want to reach agreements and don’t want to ‘throw out the democracy with the bathwater.’

“More and more right-wing people are talking about it, more and more Knesset members are whispering it in the corridors, and many ultra-Orthodox people understand the threat it poses to them in the future as a minority,” Gantz said.

Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting of his National Unity Party at the Knesset on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz asserted that Netanyahu has already softened his rhetoric when speaking to the international community. “We are starting to see the cracks and Netanyahu is already speaking differently in English,” he said.

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