Netanyahu urges talks on overhaul; Lapid fires back that legislation must stop first

PM says he fully backs efforts to bridge disagreements on legal shakeup while accusing opposition of refusing to negotiate; opposition chief rejects premier’s ‘lies and spin’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

Addressing the public amid increasingly rancorous political divisions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said he was open to talks on his government’s efforts to radically restructure the judicial system, while blaming his rivals for the lack of negotiations — but signaling at the same time that the coalition would continue with its legislative push, despite President Isaac Herzog calling for the process to be temporarily halted.

“People of Israel, it’s time to talk,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

The premier said he was aware of worries over the plan to overhaul the judiciary, adding he fully backs negotiations “to reach agreements or at least minimize the disagreements between us.”

This, he argued, “demands leadership and national responsibility,” which he accused the opposition of not demonstrating.

“Unfortunately, on the other side, so far no one has risen [to the occasion],” he said.

He said talks should be held “without preconditions, without excuses.”

Opposition leaders have said the coalition’s legislative blitz must be paused for talks to be held — a position backed by Herzog — while the coalition has dismissed this as an illegitimate precondition and refuses to halt the legislation.

Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Firing back at Netanyahu, opposition leader Yair Lapid accused him of “lies and spin,” saying the opposition has sought “for long weeks to hold discussions” with the coalition.

“The president pled with them to stop the legislation and hold talks, the Americans asked them to stop the legislation and hold talks, and the entire people of Israel are asking the government to prevent a terrible rupture in the people, to stop this frenzy,” Lapid said in a statement.

Lapid said talks are possible immediately if “you call the president, tell him you are stopping all legislative processes and starting discussions based on the president’s proposal.”

The back-and-forth came after the Knesset passed the first reading of a bill that makes up a significant part of the controversial judicial overhaul. The legislation, passed early Tuesday, aims to amend the Basic Law: The Judiciary to cement government control over judicial appointments and revoke the High Court’s ability to review Basic Laws.

Speaking earlier Tuesday, Herzog said there was a feeling of “sorrow” after the vote and that the burden lies with the government to reach out and negotiate with the opposition.

He also said he was disappointed that his calls to negotiate were not heeded, but said that talks were still urgently required.

“We must make every effort so that after this vote it will be possible to continue negotiations to reach an agreed-upon outline that will take us out of this difficult period, into a period of agreed-upon constitutional reform,” Herzog said.

“It is not a done deal because the first reading passed; it still needs a second and third reading,” Herzog said in an address to the People of the Country conference, hosted by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily and Ynet news site.

President Isaac Herzog speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He put the onus on the government to lead the way toward compromise.

“There is extra responsibility on those who are advancing the legislation,” he said. “Prove that generosity wins, and find a way to bring the opposition to negotiations.”

“But I definitively say: the opposition also needs to enter into talks,” he added.

Speaking after Herzog, Justice Minister Yariv Levin appeared to dismiss his call.

“The masses of people have waited decades for this to occur, for them it is a morning of hope. We will press on with determination to complete the reforms,” he said.

Sponsored by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the bill that passed overnight Monday-Tuesday would transform the selection process for judges, effectively putting judicial appointments under full governmental control. It also would block the High Court from exercising oversight over Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. (This block is also aimed at preventing High Court scrutiny over the same Basic Law amendment bill that creates the mechanism.)

The vote on the legislation came after tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the Knesset waving Israeli flags and chanting “de-mo-cra-cy.”

Herzog presented a compromise proposal last week and urged a halt to the legislative process while negotiations could be conducted. However, the sides have not entered into talks, after the coalition rejected Lapid’s precondition that the bills be halted for 60 days.

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