Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday morning that his government would begin this week to unilaterally advance elements of its judicial overhaul plan, days after the opposition said it was freezing negotiations.
“What was proven last week is that [Benny] Gantz and [Yair] Lapid have been playing a game,” Netanyahu said in comments at the start of the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “It was a misrepresentation of so-called negotiations.”
Netanyahu said that the government “gave them a month, and then another month, and another, and their representatives did not agree to even the most minimal understanding [in compromise negotiations brokered by President Isaac Herzog]. Their intention was just to buy time, to waste time.”
“The vast majority of the public understands today that we need to make changes in the judicial system,” the prime minister declared. “Therefore we will meet this week and begin the practical steps, in a measured and responsible manner, but in accordance with the mandate we received [from voters] to make corrections to the judicial system.”
Lapid responded that “if Netanyahu advances with his coup plan unilaterally, as he stated, he will find out that he is prime minister of less than half of the people of Israel, with less than half of the economy, less than half of the security [establishment] and less than half of the Knesset.”
Gantz said his National Unity party would not return to judicial reform negotiations if Netanyahu unilaterally advances changes to the judicial system.
“If there is unilateral legislation, there will be no talks,” Gantz said in comments made while touring southern Israel. “If Netanyahu goes for unilateral legislation and again takes the same aggressive and steamrolling actions, he will harm democracy, Israeli society, the economy and security. And after all this, he will also fail. He will not have a majority of the people, he will not have a majority in the Knesset.”
Labor leader Merav Michaeli — whose party pulled out of the compromise talks a few weeks after they began — said Netanyahu’s comments proved that there was no point in continuing negotiations: “The time has come to intensify the struggle — only protesting will stop the coup.”
Leaders of the national protest movement issued a statement on Sunday warning that “any dictatorial legislation will be met with steadfast resistance from hundreds of thousands of determined Israelis. Our struggle will expand and intensify.”
In March, after a piece of legislation key to the judicial overhaul was advanced rapidly through the Knesset earlier this year, Netanyahu announced a pause on the bills in order to allow for negotiations brokered by Herzog aimed at reaching a broad agreement.
Last week, Gantz and Lapid announced that they were freezing the overhaul talks after Netanyahu attempted to torpedo a vote to name two MKs to the Judicial Selection Committee, preventing it from convening for at least a month. While Netanyahu sought to have his coalition vote against both nominations for the panel, some lawmakers revolted and voted in favor of the opposition candidate, who received a seat on the committee. But the vote for the second position has now been pushed off, stopping the panel from meeting.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the key figure behind the overhaul, has said that he will not convene the committee until he can pass the bill to change its composition, despite a backlog of about 80 judges that need to be appointed in an overtaxed judiciary.
That bill is already on the cusp of being passed into law and can be brought for its final two back-to-back votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice. However, such action is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public opposition.
Levin said Friday that he was “more determined than ever to do everything in order to pass the reform that is necessary to repair the justice system.”
Likud officials have indicated in recent days that the coalition could move forward with less divisive elements of the plan, such as limiting judicial review of government decisions based on a gauge of “reasonableness.”
Observers have speculated that Netanyahu is facing internal pressure, from Levin and others, over the lack of progress on the judicial overhaul amid the stalled negotiations. Yet the prime minister is seen as wary of ramming through highly divisive legislation, knowing that it will bring condemnation from US President Joe Biden, who is he hoping will invite him for a White House visit.
On Friday a close Netanyahu ally, Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar, said it was time the coalition moved ahead with at least some parts of the legislation.
Speaking to Channel 12, Zohar said he believed that “Netanyahu desires — and understands that it is possible — to start advancing part of the reform [unilaterally]. Not everything at once, this very moment. Not in a blitz. One thing at a time. We have a long term. Issues under broad consensus can be passed immediately. Issues that are more controversial — we should continue to try to talk.”
Zohar warned that if there is a feeling within the coalition that the overhaul is being sidelined, “it won’t end with the resignation of Yariv Levin. There will be mass resignations from the cabinet.”
“Anyone who thinks this term can pass without amendments to the justice system is mistaken,” he added.
But some Likud lawmakers are clearly frustrated with the judicial overhaul plan and the government’s handling, evident in the secret ballot last week to elect the MKs to the Judicial Selection Committee.
Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar was elected 58-56, meaning at least four coalition members broke ranks to vote for her. Senior Likud members have expressed opposition to the judicial overhaul in recent days, saying the effort hurt public support for the party and pushed other significant items off the agenda, the Haaretz daily reported last week.
“More and more ministers and MKs in the coalition are signaling to Netanyahu to back down from the reforms and distance himself from Yariv Levin,” a coalition lawmaker told Haaretz.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.