Netanyahu ally: Levin stepping down would topple government

Netanyahu said to dismiss Levin’s resignation threat: ‘Makes no impression on me’

Likud dismisses ‘false’ account, says PM ‘fully trusts’ justice minister, amid reports of struggle over future of judicial overhaul if compromise talks fail

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s reported threat to resign if parts of the government’s judicial overhaul plan aren’t passed in the next few months, Hebrew media reported Wednesday, as the ruling Likud party denied mounting reports of souring relations between the once-close allies.

With ongoing compromise talks on the plan to radically weaken the justice system seemingly making no significant headway, tensions have emerged within the coalition regarding what to do if the negotiations end up failing.

The justice minister — a key architect of the government’s plan to exert greater political control over the judiciary — told his associates that if nothing is passed into law before the Knesset adjourns at the end of July, “what reason do I have to be in the government?” Channel 12 news reported Sunday.

According to the report, Netanyahu is eager to finish the Knesset session without bringing any of the highly contentious legislation back to the parliament floor, citing the government’s consistently poor standing in opinion polls.

In late March, the premier announced a pause to the coalition’s push of the overhaul bills through the legislative process amid nationwide protests and strikes, allowing for the compromise talks to begin. Levin, who had threatened at the time to resign if the legislation were frozen, ended up backing down and remaining in his post.

On Wednesday, in response to Levin’s reported renewed threat, Army Radio quoted Netanyahu as saying in closed meetings: “He keeps threatening, media reports say ‘Yariv Levin is threatening.’ He can threaten. What can I say? It makes no impression on me.”

The Ynet news site quoted an unnamed senior coalition official close to Netanyahu as saying it was “clear” that Levin’s resignation would cause the government to collapse, “and therefore it is highly likely that he won’t do it.” The official noted that Levin had previously backed down from a similar threat because he understood the consequences of such a move.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leads a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud issued a response to Army Radio’s report, branding as “false” the attribution of the remarks to Netanyahu.

“There is a systematic and purposeful attempt to destabilize the relationship between the prime minister and Minister Levin by publishing baseless rumors,” the party said. “The prime minister fully trusts Minister Levin and they are working in full cooperation.”

Likud’s Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi told Army Radio: “We’re used to the smoke machines trying for many years to create fire within Likud. But there is smoke without fire. I know the close friendship between Levin and the prime minister very well.”

Army Radio said it stood behind its reporting.

With little progress over the past six weeks in the compromise talks between coalition and opposition representatives at the President’s Residence, President Isaac Herzog himself interrupted the closed discussions on Tuesday to urge a breakthrough.

“It’s money time,” the president told assembled negotiators, according to his office.

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)

Channel 12 published additional remarks made by Herzog: “I can understand the public’s pressure [to change the judiciary], but this is what leadership is for. Any process you learn about in history didn’t happen at once, it is a lengthy process of give and take, pain and fear, and eventually — leadership decision-making. This requires courage from you to know that not everything can be done uncompromisingly.”

Parties to the talks have discussed the major threads of the coalition’s shakeup plan, among them transferring judicial appointments to political or coalition control; creating a mechanism for the Knesset to override Supreme Court judicial review; constraining the court’s ability to exercise judiciary review; blocking the court from reviewing ministerial appointments; and limiting the power of ministry legal advisers.

Levin’s priority is for the government to wrest control of judicial appointments, currently done through a selection panel that balances political and professional votes for the top court. Opposition parties are adamant that “politicization of the judiciary” is a red line.

MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee during a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, one of the coalition’s judicial overhaul champions, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, said that the government may soon unilaterally advance changes if the compromise talks fail.

The judicial shakeup is expected to return to the political fore once the state budget passes at the end of May.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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