Likud minister urges resumed judicial reform talks after 1st vote on ‘reasonableness’

Nir Barkat hopes presidential negotiations can resume once the legislation clears its first reading Monday, charges that ‘it was the opposition that left the room’

Economy Minister Nir Barkat attends a conference at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on July 10, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Economy Minister Nir Barkat attends a conference at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on July 10, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Economy Minister Nir Barkat said Monday that once the coalition passes the first reading of a key bill to limit judicial review, it should return to negotiations on a consensual process of judicial reform mediated by President Isaac Herzog.

In an interview with the ultra-Orthodox Kikar Hashabat news site, Likud lawmaker Barkat blamed the opposition for the breakdown of the negotiations, claiming the sides had been close to an agreement.

“It was the opposition that left the room,” he said.

Opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz pulled out of talks in mid-June after the prime minister attempted — but failed — to put off a crucial vote to elect lawmakers to the country’s Judicial Selection Committee. Though the premier’s efforts actually led to the opposition’s candidate being elected and the coalition being temporarily left without a representative, Lapid and Gantz denounced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to avoid staffing the key panel, and said they would not negotiate so long as the committee remains unable to convene and appoint judges.

However, in recent days Gantz has appeared to change his tune, and on Thursday he urged the coalition to resume talks.

“I call on Netanyahu to immediately announce the cessation of unilateral legislation, to come to the President’s Residence today and return to dialogue,” Gantz said last week. “If not for democracy, if not for security, if not for the economy, then for the integrity of the people of Israel and the prevention of bloodshed.”

File: Heads of opposition parties Labor MK Merav Michaeli, Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid, National Unity head MK Benny Gantz, Israel Beteinu head MK Avigdor Liberman and leader of the United Arab List MK Mansour Abbas hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Barkat said on Monday that he backs the resumption of talks following the initial vote on the bill, which would bar courts from exercising judicial review over the reasonableness of government decisions.

It is unclear whether the opposition would agree to talks after the bill advances, as it has repeatedly rejected negotiations while the legislation moves forward, saying it is akin to being held with a “gun to the head.”

Opponents of the legislation have called for mass demonstrations on Tuesday if the legislation clears the upcoming plenum reading, the first of three it must pass to become law.

“If you asked me, I’d recommend returning to the President’s Residence between the first and the second and third readings to work out a broadly agreed-upon reasonableness clause, as is possible,” Barkat said.

Barkat’s position appears to be an outlier in Likud, which has pressed forward with its overhaul plans unilaterally since the talks broke down, with right-wing hardliners determined to score an achievement before the conclusion of the Knesset’s summer session at the end of the month.

Responding to Gantz’s appeal last week, Likud said: “We don’t believe Benny Gantz.” The National Unity party chief “is prisoner to the protests and is unwilling or unable to reach any agreements,” Likud charged. “His whole purpose is to waste more time.”

Justice Minister Yariv Levin addresses the Knesset, July 5, 2023 (Screenshot: YouTube)

The Knesset was set to vote later Monday on the highly controversial bill to curtail judicial review of the “reasonableness” of elected officials’ decisions.

The bill’s brief text completely bars courts from using the reasonableness test to invalidate or even discuss decisions made by the cabinet, ministers, and “other elected officials, as set by law.”

While Netanyahu ordered his justice minister and the head of the Knesset committee sponsoring the bill to “soften” the language so as not to shield local city halls from petitions for judicial review, the bill’s language has not so far been changed.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Reasonableness is a judicial test that allows courts to strike down government and administrative decisions seen as having not taken into account all the relevant considerations of a particular issue, or having not given the correct weight to those considerations — even if they do not violate any particular law or contradict other administrative rulings.

Proponents of limiting the courts’ use of the reasonableness doctrine say that it has enabled rule by judiciary. Critics say the test is a vital bulwark against government abuse.

Different proposals for limiting reasonableness have been floated by legal scholars and politicians, with the coalition’s current bill the most extreme mainstream curtailment of the doctrine to date.

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