Netanyahu says he ‘fully supports’ overhaul talks, believes deal can be made

Religious Zionism’s Simcha Rothman warns coalition’s survival dependent on passing plan to weaken judiciary; unnamed Likud officials attack Levin as ‘snake’ trying to replace PM

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 30, 2023 (Emil Salman/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 30, 2023 (Emil Salman/POOL)

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced support Sunday for the compromise negotiations over his government’s contentious plan to weaken the judiciary, a key architect of the plan warned that the coalition’s survival depended on the overhaul being passed.

“There is a fundamental debate between us regarding the legal reform, but we are making an effort to resolve this debate through dialogue” with the opposition, Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“With the goodwill of both parties, I am convinced that agreements can be reached — and I fully support this,” he added.

Shortly before Netanyahu made those remarks, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman warned that the survival of the government depended on the overhaul being passed.

“The legal reform will pass — it is necessary for the survival of the coalition. And it’s not just me that thinks this, it’s also in the coalition agreements,” Rothman told the Ynet news site.

“I don’t know how and when, but there will be a reform,” the far-right lawmaker said. “The State of Israel cannot be left in limbo for a long period of time.”

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked if there was a deadline for the negotiations, Rothman said that it was “not up to him.” but claimed that last week’s mass rally in support of the overhaul “forces a deadline.”

Senior opposition lawmakers have in recent weeks called into question the coalition’s commitment to reaching a broad consensus with the opposition on judicial reform during their ongoing negotiations.

Those concerns were heightened last week after Justice Minister Yariv Levin gave a speech at the rally in which he tore into the Supreme Court and defended the far-reaching proposals to change the judiciary, which he has been spearheading.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz on Friday slammed the justice minister and other coalition figures for “inciting and lying” during the Jerusalem demonstration.

“Levin’s false and unrestrained comments against the High Court make it hard to think positively about the ability to reach agreements in the talks at the President’s Residence, agreements that are needed for the Israeli people at this time,” he said in a statement.

Turning to the rally itself, Gantz called protesting a “sacred right in a democracy and that’s what we’re fighting for,” but denounced demonstrators who were filmed treading on a massive banner with the faces of Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and a number of former top judicial and legal officials, alongside slogans against them. It was unclear whether it was intentional or whether the banner had been placed on the ground for a period before being later lifted by activists as they marched near the Knesset.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, April 19, 2023. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

“In the State of Israel, which has magnificent and strong judicial institutions, a justice minister can’t incite against judges. You can criticize, but not incite,” Gantz said, adding that Levin’s remarks “cause those who really want agreements… to ask ourselves if the other side also wants them.”

Rothman on Sunday claimed that Gantz’s comments showed that the opposition lawmaker was “not interested in negotiations or in their success.”

Meanwhile, unnamed senior sources within the Likud party attacked Levin on Sunday, saying that he was causing massive damage to Netanyahu with the aim of replacing him as prime minister.

“Levin has turned out to be a cunning and dangerous snake,” the source said.

“He is blackmailing the prime minister,” the unnamed source said, adding that it is impossible to govern when “enemies from within are piling up difficulties.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied across Israel Saturday evening as part of ongoing demonstrations against the government’s contentious judicial overhaul, with the Knesset’s Sunday reopening for its summer session raising the possibility of a renewed push to pass the explosive bills to radically curtail the judiciary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, April 30, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

A key overhaul bill that would put judicial appointments under political control has passed nearly all legislative stages and is ready to be passed within days, if the coalition so desires.

However, analysts and commentators believe the coalition will not advance any of the legislation before passing the state budget, which the ruling bloc must do by May 29 or face automatic elections.

Critics say the overhaul, which will shift much of the judiciary’s power into the government’s hands, will make Israel a democracy in name only, shielding leaders from accountability while leaving minority rights largely unprotected and subject to the whims of Netanyahu’s hard-right government. Proponents say the changes are needed to rein in what they see as an overly activist court.

Polls have consistently shown that the legislation is broadly unpopular in its current form, and that support for the government has dropped since the election.

At the main rally in Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, protest leaders announced that they would ramp up activities on Thursday, marking it as “national equality day.”

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