Likud denies report Levin at odds with PM, will quit if overhaul markedly softened

Channel 12 claims tensions high over minister’s refusal to compromise on plan; both sides reject story as ‘fake news’; network says it stands by its reporting

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli television reported Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin are at loggerheads over the state of the government’s controversial judicial overhaul plans. According to Channel 12, Netanyahu has sought to soften elements of the sweeping reforms in light of intense public pushback, while Levin has threatened to resign from his position and work toward bringing down the coalition if significant changes are made.

The offices of Netanyahu and Levin both strongly rejected the report, with Likud dismissing it as “vile lies” and both sides calling it “fake news.” Netanyahu’s party said the report was “aired in an amateurish fashion despite being denied by every official source.”

Channel 12 said it stood by its reporting on the matter.

Citing associates close to Netanyahu, Channel 12 said the prime minister had been taken by surprise at Levin’s “rigid” approach to the judicial legislation, and was growing increasingly agitated at the manner in which it was being advanced.

Channel 12 quoted one source close to the premier as saying: “Yariv Levin is pushing this to the extreme for political reasons. There is no doubt he will be the chief beneficiary if the attorney general orders Netanyahu’s recusal [for breaching a conflict of interest agreement]. Netanyahu has lost trust and is trying to lead the reform himself, but the attorney general is preventing it.”

The network acknowledged that Netanyahu is also interested in significant changes to the balance of power between the government and the judiciary, and noted that he appointed Levin knowing exactly what Levin was planning, but said the prime minister has been troubled by Levin’s intransigence.

The High Court of Justice is reviewing a petition brought by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel seeking to declare the prime minister unfit for office. The group argues that Netanyahu is in violation of a 2020 conflict of interest arrangement that bars him from involvement in matters that could impact his ongoing trial on graft charges — while at the same time leading a government pushing forward major limitations to the justice system.

On Monday, several Hebrew media outlets reported that Netanyahu’s lawyers had approached Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to ask her permission for him to publicly and directly address the judicial overhaul plan in spite of the conflict of interest agreement. The attorney general was said to have replied in the negative.

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

Left: Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara at a welcome ceremony for her in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, a report from Kan news on Wednesday claimed that Netanyahu was in contact with “economists, commentators and business executives” in the US and UK, hoping to convince them of the legitimacy of the coalition’s legal reforms.

Citing confidants of Netanyahu, the report asserted the conversations were a matter of routine for the prime minister. “This is nothing new,” it said.

On Friday former US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers said the government’s plans could raise “serious and profound questions about the rule of law” and harm the economy — reportedly days after Netanyahu lobbied him to back the government’s proposals.

In a speech to the nation on Sunday night, President Herzog called for compromise over the government’s plans, warning of acute damage to Israel’s societal cohesion if sweeping changes were made without broad agreement.

Herzog, acknowledging the need for some version of judicial reform, laid out a five-point plan that he believed could form the basis for a compromise between the coalition and the opposition.

On Tuesday night, the president met with one of the bill’s major architects, Simcha Rothman, as well as opposition chief Yair Lapid and the leader of the centrist National Unity party, Benny Gantz.

The meetings, which all took place at the president’s official residence in Jerusalem, were aimed at pushing the parties to engage in dialogue in a bid to end the bitter standoff.

The coalition is determined to push the legislation through as soon as possible but has said it would simultaneously engage in compromise talks with the opposition. However, the opposition has insisted that the legislative process must be halted to allow good-faith negotiations to take place.

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