Negotiators believe overhaul compromise talks are dead on arrival — report

Coalition said to insist it take control of Judicial Selection Committee, a non-starter for the opposition, killing chance of an agreement before negotiations get off the ground

President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial overhaul negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)
President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial overhaul negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)

The negotiations aimed at reaching a compromise over the government’s contentious judicial overhaul legislation are already dead in the water, senior officials involved in the talks said on Friday.

President Isaac Herzog began hosting the talks this week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed on Monday to temporarily halt the government’s push to upend the judicial system following widespread protests, which peaked after he fired his defense minister who warned about the security implications of the coalition’s proposals.

During the early negotiations, the coalition has insisted that it end up with control of the Judicial Selection Committee, a non-starter for the opposition, essentially ending the chances for the negotiations before the talks got off the ground, officials involved in the process told Channel 12.

The makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee — which currently divides power between politicians and justices to decide on new judicial appointments, including to the Supreme Court — is one of the most contentious parts of the overhaul.

The coalition has almost completed legislating a bill that would heavily politicize the committee and give the government control over almost all judicial appointments.

One of the suggestions that has come up in the talks is for the coalition to change the composition of the committee and automatically get to appoint the first new justice to the High Court after each national election. The opposition shot down the idea, saying that the coalition could then choose its own Supreme Court president and use that position to appoint other judges, Channel 12 reported.

The two sides met for negotiations at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem for around an hour and a half on Friday.

In this handout photo, President Isaac Herzog meets with representatives of the Labor party at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 29, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Herzog urged the coalition and opposition to give the negotiations a chance to succeed, despite the lack of trust and animosity between the two sides.

“I am aware that the walls of suspicion are high. I know that unfortunately there is hostility and mistrust,” Herzog said in a statement. “But it is important that we take a deep breath, look at the reality and give the negotiation process a real chance. Our country is dear to all of us.”

The atmosphere has already gotten testy, with coalition lawmakers on Thursday railing against the opposition National Unity MK Chili Tropper after he insisted in media interviews that the government would not be granted the exclusive right to appoint judges to the top court.

This led Justice Minister Yariv Levin to accuse him of seeking to “blow up the talks and set the country on fire.”

The pair later spoke on the phone and agreed to tamp down the invective despite their disagreements. Levin and Tropper said after speaking that while they remained at odds on the issues, they have “mended fences” personally.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Roughly two dozen negotiators are participating in the discussion, with a team of Likud representatives attending on the coalition’s behalf while the Yesh Atid, National Unity, Labor and Ra’am opposition parties each sent their own teams of negotiators. Members of the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al alliance party met with Herzog and told him they have “no trust” in the pause declared by Netanyahu, citing “past experience.”

Other opposition representatives have expressed similar grievances regarding Netanyahu and said they will continue supporting the anti-overhaul protests while still being prepared to give the negotiations a chance.

In a video statement Friday, Netanyahu said he backed the negotiations.

“I think we need to make the effort to reach a broad national consensus, and if there is goodwill on the other side, we can succeed,” he said.

He also hailed the tens of thousands of right-wingers who took to the streets twice in the past week for protests in support of the overhaul. Several hundred of the protesters were filmed chanting racist slogans against Arabs, with some of them attacking Arab passersby and journalists.

Protesters attend a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Also Friday, hundreds of anti-overhaul demonstrators picketed outside the homes of Levin, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter and MK David Bitan — all of Likud — seeking to exert additional pressure on them.

Over one hundred people also gathered outside the home of National Unity chair Benny Gantz, who has been the most vocal opposition lawmaker in favor of compromise with the coalition. The protesters urged him not to do so, chanting slogans such as, “you have no mandate to compromise on democracy.”

Dozens also protested against the overhaul at Ben Gurion Airport, holding up signs that read, “welcome to the dictatorship.”

The attorney general has warned that the coalition’s current package of legislation — which would give the coalition almost complete control over all judicial appointments, and radically constrain the High Court — would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character.

Netanyahu on March 27 agreed to suspend the legislation — notably including the bill to change the Judicial Selection Committee, which was to have been approved by the Knesset within days — until the Knesset returns on April 30. The overhaul would end up passing “one way or another,” and the “lost balance” between the branches of government would be restored, he said. “We will not give up on the path for which we were elected,” he vowed.

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