Protest group says democratic values non-negotiable in any talks on overhaul

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel insists on bill of rights, ‘supremacy of the law’ and an independent judiciary as preconditions for negotiations with government

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

Attorney Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, speaks at an event in Jerusalem, March 9, 2023. (Courtesy Movement for Quality Government in Israel)
Attorney Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, speaks at an event in Jerusalem, March 9, 2023. (Courtesy Movement for Quality Government in Israel)

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel (MQG), one of the key organizations protesting against the coalition’s judicial overhaul program, on Thursday issued a list of firm conditions for entering into negotiations with the government for a compromise on the radical plans, which have sparked an unprecedented political crisis.

The organization’s head, veteran attorney Eliad Shraga, listed ten conditions, including the adoption of a constitution based on “the spirit” of the Declaration of Independence, and the passage of a bill of rights to ensure equality “in rights and obligations,” as preconditions for a compromise solution.

He also insisted that negotiations cannot begin unless the government completely halts the legislative process for the bills it is currently driving through the Knesset to enact its far-reaching judicial reforms.

Meanwhile, the architects of the government’s judicial overhaul plan, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman, both indicated that changes to the legislation they are pushing forward are possible, but continued to insist that they will not halt the legislative process despite the demands of the opposition.

Key coalition figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have criticized the opposition parties for refusing to enter into negotiations over the overhaul program so long as it is still in motion and accused them of making political hay out of the crisis.

The grass-roots organizations behind the public protests have insisted, however, that all legislation be halted before dialogue can begin.

Israeli students clash with police during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, near the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 9, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This is the most important struggle in the history of the country,” said Shraga at his organization’s protest tent outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem.

“We will not conduct negotiations over the rule of law and the supremacy of the law. We will not compromise over democratic and liberal values,” he continued, implicitly rejecting alternative proposals made of late as similarly damaging to Israeli democracy.

Among Shraga’s ten conditions were “a clear separation of powers” and the formulation of a system of checks and balances, an independent judicial selection committee that is not controlled by politicians, mechanisms to prevent someone on trial or convicted of serious crimes from serving in government, guarantees for the independence of the attorney general and government legal advisers, and a rejection of any expansion of authority for the state rabbinical courts.

Shraga said he presented his proposals and a draft constitution drawn up by MQG to President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday night.

Longtime legal activist Shraga and MQG have been behind some of the most significant petitions to the High Court of Justice in recent years, including motions to have Shas leader Aryeh Deri removed from ministerial office and demanding that blanket military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students be annulled.

Former Supreme Court justice Ayala Procaccia was also present at MQG’s Thursday event and insisted, like Shraga, that good-faith negotiations cannot be conducted while the government continues to move ahead with the legislative process for the judicial overhaul program, but added that both sides need to be open to negotiations.

Former Supreme Court justice Ayala Procaccia speaks at an event held by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel in Jerusalem, March 9, 2023. (Courtesy Movement for Quality Government in Israel)

“We will never agree to live in a country that is not just, fair, and human,” said Procaccia.

Asked whether his list of conditions is too rigid as to preclude any possibility of negotiations with the coalition, Shraga insisted that the protest movement is simply unable to compromise on the principles he laid out.

“I am not able to compromise over the laws of liberal democracy — that’s my DNA,” he said. “I am not playing their game. If they want a clash they’ll have a clash.”

He said that if the judicial overhaul package will pass into law, his organization will appeal to the High Court, which will have to decide if it is constitutional. If it decides it is not, the results of such a constitutional crisis would then play out.

“They can decide if they want to accept the rulings of the High Court or not, if they want to break the rules of the game. We will not compromise on our values. That needs to be clear to anyone who is going to negotiate or bargain with the president, and I explained that to the president very clearly,” said Shraga.

Speaking to Kan public radio on Thursday, the coalition’s Rothman said that the legislation “does not have to be passed as it is,” but accused the opposition of failing to come to the negotiating table in order to agree on a compromise.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman speaking with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a debate in the Knesset plenum, March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He denied that he had deliberately written an extreme proposal for the judicial reforms as a negotiating tactic, and insisted that he had simply adopted some of the proposals that gained support from right-wing parties in the previous governing coalition, such as Yisrael Beytenu and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, which are both now in the opposition.

“I personally don’t think that we need to pass it exactly as it is written and as I proposed in the draft bill,” said Rothman, who chairs the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

“You propose a thesis, the opposition raises the antithesis, and at the end of the day you get a synthesis,” he said, adding that the legislation he advanced has already been amended in committee. “But to speak you need two sides, and what is happening at the moment is that we are doing this alone because the opposition is not conducting a serious debate.”

Channel 12 reported on Wednesday that Rothman and Levin, the justice minister, were considering adopting some of the components of an alternative plan announced on Tuesday, but a spokesperson for Rothman would only say that the issue was “under discussion.”

Levin’s office said changes to the bills currently being advanced were possible and that the legislation to give the government control over judicial appointments — the bill that is the furthest along the legislative path — would not look exactly the same as the version approved in a first Knesset reading last month.

Ziv Keinan, one of the founding members of the Kumi Israel (Arise Israel) organization, another key player in the anti-government demonstrations, told The Times of Israel that the protest movement would not agree to any negotiation while the government’s legislation was still being advanced.

A demonstration against the government’s judicial overhaul program, March 4, 2023. (Courtesy Rafi Michaeli)

He insisted that the bills be formally withdrawn from the Knesset in order to enable a dialogue process to begin.

“We won’t surrender to dictatorship and we won’t negotiate over how deep the dictatorship will be,” said Keinan.

He said, however, that his organization did not have a specific plan drawn up or a list of demands in order to agree to negotiations, and that the protest movement in general was not trying to “dictate what should happen.”

Keinan said change and amendments to the current legal and judicial landscape were possible as long as it was focused on a basis of “equality, justice, and peace for all inhabitants of the country,” and on the needs of citizens, not politicians.

“We are the expression of outrage of youth in Israel who oppose turning the country into a dictatorship where only one branch of government has power, and in which the judicial branch’s ability to defend human rights is under attack,” said Keinan.

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