Histadrut, business chiefs could declare general strike

Likud, protest leaders reject labor union’s compromise overhaul bill

Both sides claim proposal would be a victory for the other; Histadrut to mull next steps as it faces growing pressure to intervene in national crisis

Arnon Bar-David, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
Arnon Bar-David, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Speculation grew Sunday evening that the Histadrut, Israel’s largest labor federation, could announce a general strike after a compromise it had floated in an attempt to end a bitter, divisive national standoff over the government’s planned drastic overhaul of the judiciary was quickly dismissed by the ruling Likud party, anti-government protesters and parts of the opposition.

In a joint statement, Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David and Dov Amitai, head of the Israeli Presidency of Business Organizations, presented an outline of their proposal regarding the coalition’s “reasonableness” bill, which — if passed as is on Monday or Tuesday — would remove courts’ ability to use the doctrine to review politicians’ decisions.

The compromise version was proposed by legal scholars professors Yuval Elbashan and Yedidia Stern and former deputy attorney general Raz Nizri.

According to the draft proposal, courts would not be able to strike down government decisions on grounds of “reasonableness” if they relate to “matters of policy” and were approved by the entire cabinet. It was not clear whether a majority of ministers would be sufficient under the proposal to shield a decision from the reasonableness test, or if a unanimous decision by all cabinet members would be required.

Judges would also be barred from exercising the judicial standard to review the appointments of ministers and deputy ministers.

“All other decisions by ministers… will continue to be subject to judicial review, including per the reasonableness standard,” the statement said, while adding the changes wouldn’t take effect until a government is formed after the next elections.

The proposal also called for resuming talks between coalition and opposition representatives to reach agreement “on the rest of the issues,” with the government agreeing not to move forward with any further overhaul legislation in the next 18 months unless backed by at least 75 Knesset members. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government holds 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

The changes would not apply to a transitional government if elections are called, the statement noted, thereby subjecting caretaker governments, who do not have clear electoral legitimacy, to judicial review on policy decisions and appointments to key positions.

“We call on everyone to immediately stand behind this balanced compromise proposal for the future of the country and to save Israeli society,” Bar-David and Amitai said in the statement.

Bar-David is facing intense pressure from opponents of the judicial shakeup to declare a general strike in an attempt to stop the coalition’s bill to limit court oversight of government decisions, and had previously promised to convene and discuss “further steps” if no agreement were reached by 4 p.m. on Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives an address from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 20, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

But the proposal was swiftly rejected out of hand by key players.

Netanyahu’s Likud party claimed it amounted to a “unilateral acceptance” of the opposition’s stance.

“The proposal completely neuters the amendment on the issue of reasonableness and requires total concession on all the other elements of the reform,” the party said in a statement. “We are continuing to make every effort for a real compromise.”

Likud minister David Amsalem launched a public attack on Bar-David, anticipating that the latter could end up launching a nationwide strike.

“I remind you that you represent workers who are mostly Likud people who are struggling to make a living,” Amsalem tweeted. “The issue of the judicial reform should be decided in the Knesset, not in the corridors of the Mapai-like Histadrut,” he argued, citing the workers’ party that was a precursor to left-wing Labor and was the ruling party for Israel’s first three decades.

“I think you’re a bit confused — you’re in fact caring for the elites who lost the election.”

Likud MK David Amsalem (left) reacts during a discussion and a vote on the state budget at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The heads of the largest parties in the opposition, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, indicated the proposal could be entertained, but smaller parties were dismissive.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli issued a statement saying: “There is no compromising on democracy.” Michaeli warned that the compromise would be “a tremendous opening for corruption, politicization of the judicial system and increased risk of harm to human rights.”

Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beytenu opposition party, called the compromise attempts “futile discussions,” saying: “We should under no circumstances fall for Netanyahu’s deception tactics. I remind my friends in the opposition that all dialogue with Netanyahu ended with duplicity [on his part].”

Leaders of the anti-overhaul protest movement, which has spearheaded mass protests across the country, similarly rejected the proposal as still enabling elements of judicial change that it would not accept.

“The demands of the protest have not changed from the first moment: the rejection of the legislation and the determination that significant changes in the system of the regime will only be made with a broad consensus,” organizers said in a statement.

“Compromises that end up turning Israel into a dictatorship are worse than a resolution [by other means],” it continued.

Referencing Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who was removed from his ministerial post by the High Court earlier this year due to his past criminal convictions, partly based on the reasonableness clause, the party said: “This is a proposal whose entire essence is to return the criminal Deri to the government table and will not necessarily prevent the dismissal of guardians [of the law] and senior officials in the civil service if they do not conform to the whims of politicians.”

The current iteration of the “reasonableness bill,” comprising a tersely worded single paragraph, would amend Basic Law: The Judiciary to completely block courts from evaluating the “reasonableness” of administrative decisions made by the cabinet or its ministers.

The main public figure backing the proposal was opposition leader Yair Lapid, who met earlier in the day with Bar-David in the latter’s Tel Aviv office, after which he expressed support for the proposal.

“Israel is at a fateful moment and in a struggle for its image and soul,” Lapid said. “It is our duty to make every effort to stop the madness and reach broad agreements. The outline laid down by the Histadrut is a basis for a common dialogue.”

After Likud dismissed the proposal, Lapid slammed the ruling party in a statement: “The opposition was prepared to deliberate [the proposal] but the coalition immediately rejected it out of hand. It’s not clear who decided to say ‘no’ in their name, but it’s clearer than ever that the extremists in the government have decided to push the State of Israel into the abyss.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaks during a Knesset debate ahead of a vote on the ‘reasonableness’ bill, July 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Reasonableness is a test established by the courts through which they exercise oversight over decisions they consider reckless, unethical, or incompletely considered. Under the current legislation, they would be able to continue to use the test for decisions made by bureaucrats or elected officials at the municipal level, but not ministers or the prime minister.

The developments came after Bar-David held a five-hour emergency meeting overnight Saturday and early Sunday morning to discuss courses of action as the coalition moves forward with the bill. At the meeting were Amitai and other senior Histadrut officials.

In a joint statement following the meeting, they declared that if no solution for a compromise is reached by 4 p.m. on Sunday, it would reconvene to consider its next steps.

According to reports Friday, Bar-David and Amitai met with Netanyahu recently to try to find a compromise deal.

In late March, the Histadrut announced a general strike as the coalition attempted to push multiple overhaul balls through parliament. That strike lasted a single day as Netanyahu quickly halted the legislation to allow for talks with opposition party representatives hosted by President Isaac Herzog.

But months of negotiations failed to bring an agreement and Netanyahu’s coalition of right, far-right and religious parties has recently forged ahead unilaterally with remaking the justice system.

Bar-David has in recent weeks resisted calls to threaten another strike, saying such tools should not be used lightly.

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