Report: Hayut asks to freeze judicial overhaul push to talk compromise, PM says no

President Herzog’s efforts to mediate between Supreme Court head and hardline government stall, Channel 13 reports

A composite image, from left, of Justice Minister Yariv Levin at a government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023; Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a hearing in Jerusalem on December 1, 2022; and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A composite image, from left, of Justice Minister Yariv Levin at a government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023; Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a hearing in Jerusalem on December 1, 2022; and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut has reportedly demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government freeze all efforts to push through plans for a radical judicial overhaul while President Isaac Herzog leads a proposed mediation process to negotiate a compromise. The demand was rejected by the premier and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the plans’ mastermind, Israel’s Channel 13 reported.

Tuesday’s report said that Herzog has been working for several weeks to mediate between the head of the Supreme Court and the government, amid vociferous opposition to Levin’s proposed plans to severely limit the court’s independent powers.

The proposals presented by Levin earlier this month would sharply restrict the High Court’s capacity to annul laws and government decisions with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

Critics of the proposed radical overhaul say the changes will gut the courts, leave minority rights unprotected and concentrate too much power in the hands of the ruling coalition. Proponents say the current system gives unelected judges and lawyers too much power over elected officials.

According to the TV report, Herzog proposed forming a team of jurists from both sides to begin a negotiation process and presented an outline to Hayut, who agreed on the condition that the push for the judicial shake-up be halted “completely and immediately.” When Herzog relayed the condition to Netanyahu and Levin, they said no and the mediation process stalled, Channel 13 reported.

Herzog and others have urged the hardline Netanyahu government to negotiate over the contours of the overhaul plan.

Last week, the president issued a plea to Israel’s leadership to “show responsibility… take the time needed for this critical discussion,” and warned that the clash over the contentious judicial plans “could consume us all.”

“The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within. I’m telling you loud and clear: This powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency.”

Herzog said that the government’s “dramatic reform, when done quickly without negotiation, rouses opposition and deep concerns among the public,” and urged the coalition to listen to Israel’s diverse communities.

“We need to strive for broad agreements,” said Herzog.

The judicial overhaul plans have drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts as well as weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, prominent economists, businesses, academics, the vaunted Israeli tech sector and others. Earlier this month, almost all the attorneys general and state attorneys since 1975 signed a letter decrying the government’s plans, and warning that they “threaten to destroy the justice system.”

Earlier this month, Hayut gave an extraordinarily fiery speech denouncing the Netanyahu government’s plans and warned the move would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic identity.

Hayut said that the sweeping changes to the legal system would fatally undermine judicial independence, give the Knesset a “blank check” to pass any legislation it pleases — even in violation of basic civil rights — and deny the courts the tools needed to serve as a check on executive power.

Levin then lambasted Hayut’s speech, saying it underlined his arguments that the justice system has been politicized, and chastised her for violating ethics rules for serving judges.

On Sunday, former state attorney Moshe Lador, who oversaw the prosecution of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, said plans to overhaul the judiciary were being advanced “in a heavy-handed and forceful manner that…will change the face of the nation.”

Lador said Netanyahu was aware that he was in serious legal jeopardy from his ongoing trial on corruption charges and was working to defang the judiciary in order to save himself from prison. He argued that Netanyahu should have recused himself under the terms of the conflict of interest agreement by which he was allowed to continue to serve as prime minister while on trial, provided he had nothing to do with any policymaking that could impact his trial.

“Not stopping Netanyahu and not requiring him to recuse himself is a very serious mistake, and it is leading us to the destruction of democracy,” said Lador, who also called for mass public protests against the proposed judicial overhaul.

Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases, facing charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated in an attempted political coup led by the police, the state prosecution, the media, and leftist rivals.

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