ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 54

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Lapid thanks US Jews for criticism of overhaul, backs talks if coalition halts bills

In a letter to Jewish Federations, the opposition leader says he supports President Herzog’s calls for negotiations, insists legislative advance stop

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Leader of the opposition and Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid speaks at a protest against the government's judicial overhaul program outside the Knesset, February 13, 2023. (Arie Leib)
Leader of the opposition and Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid speaks at a protest against the government's judicial overhaul program outside the Knesset, February 13, 2023. (Arie Leib)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid responded to an open letter sent by the Jewish Federations of North America to him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, agreeing in principle to the organizations’ calls for compromise on the government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

In their highly unusual letter, the Jewish Federations expressed grave concerns about the government’s current proposals, specifically its plans to allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions with a 61-seat majority, and called for Netanyahu, Lapid and the rest of the country’s politicians to reach consensus on judicial reforms under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.

“I support both of your points,” Lapid wrote in a letter to the organization in response, which was exclusively obtained by The Times of Israel.

“As you know, I proposed a presidential conference and I support dialogue based on President Herzog’s framework,” he said, referring to a five-part plan presented by the president.

However, Lapid said that he would only enter such negotiations if the coalition halted its current legislative push — a request also made by Herzog — which Netanyahu has so far refused to do.

“We must halt the legislation and go into negotiations at the President’s Residence, as the president and as everyone who fears the breakup of Israeli democracy has explained. The government must immediately stop its legislative efforts so that we can hold talks and reach national consensus,” Lapid wrote.

Lapid also thanked the Jewish Federations of North America for sending the letter and for their “years of support for Israel.”

“As you know, I have worked for years and dedicated to strengthening the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. For me and for us, you are not friends, you are family,” he wrote.

In a public video, Netanyahu on Tuesday night said that he was open to talks, but with no preconditions, meaning his coalition would not halt its legislative efforts, which the opposition has compared to holding negotiations with a “gun to your head.”

In response to Lapid’s letter and Netanyahu’s video, JFNA chair Julie Platt said she appreciated that both leaders said they were open to talks and hoped that they could reconcile their differences.

Chair of the Jewish Federations of North America Julie Platt. (JFNA)

“We realize there is still a gap between the two responses, with the Prime Minister calling for negotiations without precondition and the opposition leader calling first for a freeze in the legislative activity. Surely this difference can be overcome in the interest of the essential unity of the Jewish people,” Platt said.

“We urge the two leaders to do so urgently so that negotiations can begin as quickly as possible. We again thank President Herzog for his important and courageous role in this debate,” she said.

The JFNA public letter represented a major departure from the long-term practice of JFNA and other mainstream Jewish organizations to refrain from weighing in on internal Israeli issues, deferring to the Israeli people and the Israeli government on such matters.

A JFNA spokesperson, however, denied that this represented a shift in its policy as it has in the past issued statements and open letters on government decisions relating to the Western Wall and religious pluralism in Israel. “The Jewish Federations have always stood up for the interests of North America’s Jewish community, which is why we’ve been active on issues such as the [Western Wall] agreement, religious pluralism, and an inclusive civil society in Israel for decades,” the spokesperson said.

However, those instances directly dealt with issues pertaining to international Jewry, whereas the letter sent on Tuesday focused on a more clearly internal Israeli issue.

In the missive, JFNA warned against making a “dramatic change” to the system of checks and balances and said that it was deeply concerned by the “increasingly acrimonious debate” taking place over the government’s plans.

A panel discussion at the JFNA General Assembly in Chicago on October 30, 2022. (Jewish Federations of North America)

“The essence of democracy is both majority rule and protection of minority rights,” the group wrote in its open letter.

“We recognize that any system of checks and balances will be different than those in our own countries, but such a dramatic change to the Israeli system of governance will have far-reaching consequences in North America, both within the Jewish community and in the broader society,” it said.

With its letter, JFNA joined a growing list of international Jewish groups that have called for compromise between the government and opposition on the proposed judicial overhaul, which opponents warn will undermine democracy and erase the independence of the judiciary, giving total control to the ruling coalition.

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