DM Gallant: Rift endangers our capacity to keep Israel safe

Netanyahu backs judicial compromise talks, but coalition allies balk at ‘surrender’

PM says partners won’t torpedo any possible deal on reform, as Smotrich rejects compromise on judge selection, Ben Gvir urges others to oppose ‘humiliation of over half the people’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich, in 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich, in 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that he is working to “exhaust every possibility” to reach a broad agreement regarding his government’s plans to restructure Israel’s judiciary, while pushing back at a key ally who has called to block a compromise, should one emerge.

Netanyahu’s comments came as speculation over a possible deal ramped back up. Earlier Monday, Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition National Unity party, said he would be willing to accept a compromise deal on the judicial overhaul if it “preserved democracy,” as reports swirled that Netanyahu was planning to announce a unilateral softening of the legislation in a bid to head off a confrontation with the High Court.

According to a statement from his office, Netanyahu is working “to reach a national agreement that will bring balance between the three authorities,” the legislative, executive, and judicial.

If such an agreement is reached, “nobody will prevent it from being implemented,” the statement added, in what was widely seen as a rejoinder to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and other hardliners in the coalition who have vowed to resist moves that do not meet demands for far-reaching changes to the judiciary.

Ben Gvir said that the mooted compromise would “humiliate more than half of the people” and that his party “will not support this surrender. I call on my fellow coalition heads to make their voices heard, let us oppose this caving and surrender.”

Netanyahu’s statement seemingly confirmed a deluge of unsourced reports that the premier and his emissaries are working towards reaching a compromise deal with some in the political opposition under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog or perhaps other reports that they may unilaterally constrain a recent law restricting judicial oversight on government decisions.

It came days after the premier’s office evaded reports that it was part of redoubled efforts to find consensus.

The prime minister was quickly backed by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who reiterated his push to resolve social fissures exacerbated by the judicial reform debate, which have spilled over into the military, as reservists refused to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, threatening its resilience. “Major changes must be carried out with broad agreement,” said Gallant.

The continued social strife over the overhaul is “permeating the IDF and other security agencies at a price the IDF and security establishment cannot bear,” said the defense minister, in remarks at a Monday conference in Herzliya. “I am not concerned with the question of who started it or who is right,” he added. “I say again that the continuation of the internal struggle endangers national resilience, the IDF, and our capacity to provide security for the State of Israel and protection for its citizens.”

Netanyahu’s coalition partners, however, were quick to say that their support for any deal would be conditional.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said his Religious Zionism party would accept some “concessions” to reach judicial compromises, but would not budge on increasing right-wing representation in the nation’s top court.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich holds a press conference in Jerusalem on September 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

“I told the prime minister that we are ready for dialogue and agreements, including concessions, in order to bring about unity among the people, in order to keep the Israel Defense Forces united and strong, and Israeli society intact,” Smotrich said, as part of a conference in Jerusalem.

“But at the same time, we strongly oppose dictates and ultimatums from those who lost the elections, did not win the trust of the people, and are trying, by threats of refusal and harm to state security, to dictate their position to us by force,” he continued, slamming opposition politicians and mass protests against the government’s vision for a judicial shakeup.

The most contentious — and to several in the coalition, central — overhaul goal is to change the judicial appointments process in order to increase right-wing ideological representation on the High Court of Justice.

“Under no circumstances will we agree to give up diversity in the selection of judges in order to represent all the publics in the State of Israel, and we will not agree to a situation in which the opposition, which lost the elections, can trample and run over the right-wing in the Judicial Selection Committee,” the Religious Zionism party head said.

He accused the opposition of being unwilling to budge and “ramming” their demands down the government’s throat.

“We are making great efforts to lead to honest dialogue, but unfortunately I see how, at the same time, [opposition party heads Yair] Lapid and Gantz, who blew up the talks at the President’s Residence, prevent any possibility of dialogue, and don’t want agreements. They want to receive 100% of their dictates and we won’t enable that,” he said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at an Israel Police event in Jerusalem on August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, said he is in favor of negotiations on the judicial overhaul, but against “surrender.”

“The reform is important to the State of Israel. It will balance the three authorities — the legislative, the executive and the judiciary,” he said. “Surrendering in the President’s Residence would mean humiliating more than half the nation… harming right-wing values.”

In addition to pushback within the coalition, some opposition figures have dismissed the idea of such negotiations, since they do not believe Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition will allow him to agree to any true compromise.

Lapid’s Yesh Atid party refused to formally engage with a framework put forward by Herzog last week, which would have maintained the Judicial Selection Committee’s current composition, but shifted power within the panel to increase the government’s influence.

“What we are seeing in the past few hours is an attempt to disrupt the most important hearing in the history of the High Court of Justice,” Lapid said in a statement posted to social media Monday. “The opposition will not lend a hand to such fraudulent attempts.”

Herzog had instead floated his proposal to Gantz, who said he would be open to compromise, but wanted signs of seriousness from Netanyahu in order to take the effort seriously.

National Union party head Benny Gantz speaks at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism Policy (ICT) conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2023 (Gilad Kavalerchik)

Sources close to the matter expressed skepticism about any party presenting a deal before a High Court of Justice hearing Tuesday on whether to invalidate the coalition’s recent amendment to one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, which eliminated judicial scrutiny over the “reasonableness” of government decisions.

However, Gantz on Monday reiterated his call from last week, when he rejected fresh talks with Netanyahu, for the prime minister to first prove he has the political support from his hardline coalition necessary to compromise.

“I’m not interested in Netanyahu’s motivations,” said Gantz, speaking at a conference at Reichman University. “If there is a solution placed on the table that will preserve democracy, I will be there.”

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