Report: PM told US national security adviser judicial overhaul will be softened

Israeli TV says Netanyahu was warned sweeping reforms could jeopardize US support, responded that he seeks broad consensus, changes ‘will not pass as currently presented’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told visiting US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan that the government’s controversial judicial overhaul will not be as dramatic as has been presented, according to a TV report Sunday.

The unsourced report on Channel 12 news stated that Netanyahu told Sullivan during the pair’s meeting last week in Jerusalem that he would work to ensure that any judicial reform is passed with broad agreement, and that the final legislation will be watered down from the hardline version presented earlier this month by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

The network said Sullivan told the Israeli premier that “the liberal, democratic public [in the US] and we in the administration do not like the direction you’re going in, with regards to the judicial reform.”

He ostensibly added that “if there is harm to democratic values, it will make it difficult for us to offer unwavering and unhesitating support for Israel.”

Netanyahu reportedly responded that, as far as he was concerned, any reform would be passed “with broad consensus, and will not pass as it is currently presented.”

The push by Netanyahu’s government to remake the judiciary would include transferring the appointment of judges to political control and severely limiting the High Court’s oversight of the government, creating a mechanism to re-legislate laws struck down by the court. His government says it is necessary to correct the balance of power between the political and judicial branches. Critics, including over 100,000 Israelis who took to the streets on Saturday night to protest the overhaul plan, say it threatens democratic institutions and endangers civil liberties by giving virtually all power to the governing coalition.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meets with President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, January 18, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Channel 12 noted that, within the coalition, Netanyahu has conveyed a different message, even telling heads of parties that he needed “quiet on the settlement outpost front in order to push forward the judicial reform.” Netanyahu’s far-right allies have reacted with anger to the evacuation of an illegal West Bank outpost in recent days.

In public comments, neither Netanyahu nor Sullivan mentioned the judicial overhaul, which has dominated headlines in Israel for weeks and made waves overseas as well.

On Thursday, a US official confirmed that Sullivan raised the controversial matter, but did not elaborate. Netanyahu’s office also declined to comment.

According to Channel 13 news, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides held several meetings in Israel in recent weeks in relation to US concerns over the planned overhaul.

Nides told The Times of Israel in an interview published Sunday that the US is not going to be “telling [Israelis] how to construct their judicial system.” At the same time, however, Nides added: “The prime minister has told us he wants to do big things. And we want to do big things, too. But if we want to achieve those things, we can’t wake up and have one’s backyard on fire. So he’s going to have to manage the things we care about… effectively.”

Meanwhile, Sunday’s cabinet meeting saw several ministers attack the High Court over its disqualification of Shas leader Aryeh Deri as minister, Channel 13 reported.

According to the network, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir claimed the court “would have ruled differently” if Deri had been a member of a government led by the opposite Knesset bloc.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reads a letter to Shas chair Aryeh Deri, informing Deri that he most remove him from ministerial office, at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Shas’s MK Haim Biton, a minister within the Education Ministry, said the court “is trying to break up the [right-wing] bloc.”

At the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu dismissed Deri, saying he was “compelled, with a heavy heart” to comply with Wednesday’s court ruling and terminate Deri’s dual appointment as interior and health minister. The dismissal will go into effect on Tuesday. Deri’s Shas party has pushed for Netanyahu to find a path for him to rejoin the cabinet, and the prime minister pledged to find “any legal way whereby you can continue to contribute to the State of Israel.”

Deri promised to continue to lead Shas as a lawmaker in the Knesset, chairing its faction meetings, and to attend meetings of coalition party chiefs.

In his comments Sunday, the premier slammed the court’s “unfortunate decision” to disqualify Deri from ministerial office, saying it ignored “the will of the people, as shown by the considerable trust that the public placed in the elected representatives who sit in my government, when it was clear to all that you would serve in the cabinet as a senior minister.”

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