Opposition parties deny reports of progress in judicial overhaul negotiations

Yesh Atid, National Unity say significant gaps remain in talks between coalition and opposition, allege ‘false reports’ of advances based on politically motivated leaks

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

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)
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)

Opposition parties Yesh Atid and National Unity insisted Wednesday there has been no breakthrough in negotiations with the coalition for a judicial reform compromise, contradicting reports in several Hebrew media outlets. The parties said ongoing talks under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog on the contentious issue remained stalled.

Haaretz, Ynet and others had said earlier that tentative agreements had been reached over some issues, particularly the judiciary’s use of the “reasonableness” test to review policy decisions, as well as changes to the powers of government legal advisers.

But Yesh Atid said that the reports were based on “tendentious leaks” and rumors, while National Unity stated that significant gaps remained between the opposition and coalition on all major issues.

Negotiations started at the beginning of April after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze his government’s highly divisive plan to massively curb the powers of the justice system, in the face of intense public protests and strike actions.

On Wednesday, several media outlets reported that although agreement on the key issue of the makeup of the country’s Judicial Selection Committee had not been reached, other matters were close to agreement.

Haaretz reported that under the terms of the putative agreement, the High Court of Justice would not be able to annul government decisions by using the test of reasonableness, whereby the court can rule that not all relevant considerations were taken into account or the wrong weight was given to the different considerations.

In this handout photo from May 8, 2023, President Isaac Herzog speaks at his official residence in Jerusalem. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The use of this judicial tool has frequently invoked the ire of the right-wing and religious parties currently seeking judicial reform.

The report said the court would still be able to employ the reasonableness clause on governmental appointments — and thus the ostensible agreement would not help pave Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s path back to a ministerial role, after the court partly relied on that aspect to invalidate his appointment earlier this year.

In addition, it was reported that the government would be able to obtain independent counsel when facing legal motions against the state and ministerial decisions, even if the attorney general declines to support the state’s decision.

At present, when such a situation arises the relevant minister or government agency head must obtain the permission of the attorney general to get independent counsel, another major bugbear for reform advocates.

The report said that the stated position on the legality of any government action by the attorney general would however remain binding.

Yesh Atid and National Unity rejected the suggestion that such agreements were close.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) attend the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the parliament building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“There are no agreements at all at the President’s Residence,” the National Unity party stated following the reports.

“There will be no agreements until a solution is presented for the Judicial Selection Committee, which will guarantee that there will be no politicization in the selection of judges and the legal system in general.

“We suggest that everyone stop such hysterical briefings [to reporters] and the attempt to lay the foundations for future accusations, and focus on finding solutions that will preserve Israeli democracy.”

Yesh Atid insisted the party would not compromise on preserving the independence of the judiciary and the judicial selection process, an issue that is still far from being resolved.

“We have pledged to preserve democracy and the independence of the Supreme Court and we will not give it up at any cost. Until the committee for selecting judges is convened and the independence of the court is guaranteed, all rumors about concessions and agreements are tendentious and unnecessary leaks,” the opposition’s largest party said in a statement to the press.

Herzog’s office also released a statement following the swirling rumors, and said that only concrete, formal statements should be used when evaluating the state of the negotiations.

“There is a real effort to reach agreements that are essential for our existence as a society and as a country. The unsubstantiated rumors and inaccurate assessments must be put aside and the parties allowed to sit down, deliberate and reach agreements,” Herzog’s office stated.

Since Netanyahu froze the judicial overhaul legislation on March 28 and the Knesset returned from its Passover recess, the government has channeled all its efforts into passing the state budget, which must be approved by May 29.

Once the budget is approved, it appears likely that the coalition will return its focus to its judicial overhaul agenda.

The centerpiece of this program is legislation that would give governing coalitions extensive control over the overwhelming majority of judicial appointments in Israel, by giving the coalition an in-built majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.

The bill is on the cusp of being passed into law, and can be brought for its final, 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 unrest, the likes of which was last seen before the legislation was frozen in late March.

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