PM said turning up heat on Levin for judicial compromise, but Knesset blitz goes on

Reports say Netanyahu has met minister 3 times in recent days to urge overhaul deal; Levin said enthusiastic about proposal by former justice minister and retired general

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, flanked by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, flanked by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has increased pressure on Justice Minister Yariv Levin to seek a compromise on his legislation to radically reform Israel’s justice system, with the two meeting three times in recent days to discuss the matter, according to unconfirmed reports Tuesday.

An unsourced Channel 12 report said Netanyahu did not go into details of the judicial overhaul with Levin — as he is forbidden from dealing with it directly by a conflict of interest agreement — but that he warned the minister of the potential negative consequences of the current legislation on diplomacy, the economy, security and social cohesion, and said the plan must be softened. This despite Netanyahu selecting Levin as his justice minister knowing precisely the radical package of proposals Levin would present, and publicly backing him over the past two months amid escalating opposition protests and warnings from economists, bankers, the tech sector, jurists and security personnel about the dire consequence of the overhaul for Israel’s democracy, international status, and internal unity.

The network said Levin expressed openness to changes in the legislation, but stressed that he would not halt the legislative process or compromise on the core of the legislation in his eyes — changes to the Judicial Selection Committee to give the coalition majority control of appointments to the High Court.

Reports on the alleged meetings and Netanyahu’s ostensible pressure on Levin to find common ground with the opposition were also broadcast by other networks with many of the same details. The accounts, seemingly aimed at portraying government efforts to tone down the planned legislation, came as protests against the overhaul have steadily intensified, with threats of major disruptions to air travel Thursday.

A new compromise proposal has emerged in recent days for which Levin has expressed enthusiasm, and which those around Levin have called “a breakthrough” in finding a compromise, Channel 12 reported.

The network said the draft plan is the brainchild of former justice minister Daniel Friedmann, jurist Prof. Yuval Elbashan, Giora Yaron, who has been a leading figure in the protests of the high-tech industry against the overhaul, and Giora Eiland, a retired general and former national security adviser to the government. It was submitted to President Isaac Herzog as he works to produce a compromise offer to both sides in the coming days.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have refused to hold negotiations so far, with the opposition demanding the legislation first be frozen and the coalition rejecting any preconditions.

Former National Security Adviser Giora Eiland in 2022. (Video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

According to the report, the Friedmann proposal would see the Judicial Selection Committee remade with equal representation for the coalition and the opposition. If the sides fail to agree on candidates, each side will have the power to make one appointment, while the Supreme Court President will be able to veto a candidate from each side once every Knesset term.

The plan would enable the High Court of Justice to strike down laws with a majority of 11 out of 15 justices, rather than the 12, 13 or 15 the coalition has been planning. The Knesset would then be able to override such a decision with a majority of 65 MKs, rather than the 61 Levin proposes.

Meanwhile, changes to quasi-constitutional Basic Laws would need to be approved in four readings, with the support of 70 MKs. If such support is not available, the laws can be passed with 61 votes, but then the fourth reading would need to take place in the subsequent Knesset to the first three. Under legislation currently being drafted, Basic Laws would be easily changed, and would not be subject to High Court oversight.

File: Former justice minister Daniel Friedmann attends a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finally, governmental legal advisers would not be appointed by ministers, but their opinions would also not bind the ministers, who would be able to appoint attorneys to defend their positions in court if need be.

Despite the unconfirmed reports of the compromise framework, the coalition was moving full speed ahead Tuesday with the current version of its overhaul program, saying it would start to prepare key elements of the plan next week for their final readings.

Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman has scheduled hearings on the legislation every day next week except Thursday. The bill would give the government full control over judicial appointments and ban the High Court of Justice from reviewing Basic Laws, as central pillars of the coalition’s push to curb the judiciary and give almost governing power to the political majority.

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman during a committee hearing, February 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Votes to approve the legislation in committee could be scheduled whenever Rothman decides. The bills will then move to the Knesset plenum for its final two votes after a 48-hour break.

A separate bill that would drastically limit the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down laws was approved last week for a first reading in the Knesset plenum, but has yet to be brought for a vote.

Rothman published his committee’s intensive schedule for next week a day after President Herzog said he was in the final stages of forming his compromise proposal after consultations with academics and civil society organizations on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

The first part of the legislation was approved in its first reading on February 21, generating outrage among the opposition and leading to the intensification of public protests against the far-reaching legal reforms.

Rothman’s heavily loaded schedule for hearings on the bill next week in preparation for its second and third readings indicates that he and Levin are set on passing the central pillars of the judicial overhaul before the end of the Knesset winter session on April 2, as they have said from the outset of the process.

In response to media reports about the possible format of a compromise solution on Tuesday, Rothman issued a joint statement together with Levin on Tuesday insisting that, “There is broad consensus among the public, academia, hi-tech, and the economy, and among Knesset members, for the need for broad and comprehensive reform and for its foundational principles.”

They added that “broad agreement is within arms reach” and said they would continue to try and reach an agreement on the issue while at the same time advancing the legislative process underway.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv, an opposition member of the Constitution Committee, dismissed Rothman and Levin’s comments, saying they were determined to complete their “repressive legislation” before Passover.

“Only continuing the protest and broadening it will interfere with their plans,” he added.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said later Tuesday that ostensible coalition readiness for compromise was manifestly “fictional” since the legislation was speeding ahead.

“First stop the legislation,” he urged. “Look at what Rothman did today. He put out a schedule for legislation next week. They’re continuing to legislate even as they say, ‘dialogue, dialogue.’ It’s a fraud. They need to stop the legislation. The nation is being torn apart. The economy is falling apart. What is the matter with them?”

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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