Rothman: ‘I won’t waste my precious time’ on ‘meaningless’ judicial overhaul talks

With direct compromise discussions set to resume, unnamed coalition official warns judicial selection panel ‘will not convene in its current form’ unless progress is seen this week

MK Simcha Rothman at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 29, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Simcha Rothman at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 29, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Far-right Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a key architect of the contentious planned judicial overhaul, said Tuesday that compromise talks were “meaningless” and that he would not waste his time on them.

As the direct talks between the sides were set to resume Tuesday morning, Rothman told the Kan public broadcaster that the discussions were “not interesting.”

“I do not intend to waste my precious time on fruitless discussions,” Rothman said. “The talks at the President’s Residence are meaningless.”

Rothman also criticized President Isaac Herzog, saying “he’s had thousands of opportunities if he wanted to reach an agreement.”

The lawmaker claimed that the opposition was preparing the ground to blow up the compromise talks.

“They are creating the opportunity for an explosion,” Rothman said. “The moment of truth is coming — whether it is related to the committee for selecting judges, the military conscription law or because it becomes clear to everyone that the protest has nothing to do with the reform.”

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)

Rothman reiterated that he had been against the talks from the start.

“When they decided to stop the legislation, both I and [Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel] Smotrich and many others in the coalition thought it was a mistake. But we accepted the prime minister’s decision,” Rothman said.

“The halt [to the legislation] and the talks that followed it did not advance the ability to reach agreements,” Rothman said, claiming that the discussions had instead shown that there was no chance for compromise on the matter.

Rothman’s comments came a day after an unnamed senior official in the hardline coalition told the Haaretz newspaper that “if agreements are not reached this week in the negotiations at the President’s Residence, the Judicial Selection Committee will not convene in its current form.”

“The right will not let the left impose on it a committee that it does not want,” the official said.

The comment was a repetition of the threat that the government could buck tradition and pick two members of the committee, instead of having the opposition pick one as has been the custom, or not meet at all.

The opposition, which is itself divided on its preferred candidate, has said it will walk away from the compromise talks if two coalition lawmakers are picked for the panel.

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana on Monday set the vote on the two Knesset representatives to the panel for June 14.

Under the current law, the Judicial Selection Committee comprises two government ministers, two MKs, three Supreme Court Judges, and two members of the Israel Bar Association.

A regular majority is needed to elect a lower court judge and a majority of seven out of nine members required to elect a Supreme Court judge, meaning that neither the coalition, opposition or judiciary has a majority on the panel and that both the government and the judiciary have a veto over Supreme Court appointments.

Meanwhile, an unsourced report earlier Monday said the coalition was proposing to freeze major parts of the overhaul for a year, including control of the judicial appointments panel and a potential override clause.

The report said the coalition proposed a freeze on the passage of legislation that would give governing coalitions extensive control over the overwhelming majority of judicial appointments by handing the coalition an automatic majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.

The bill is on the cusp of being passed into law, and can be brought for its final votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice.

Opponents of the overhaul have drawn a line in the sand on that bill, saying it will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. Its passage is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public opposition.

Protesters lift flags during a rally protesting the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv on May 27, 2023. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

In addition, the coalition would also freeze the passage of a law that would allow the Knesset to override the High Court if it strikes down legislation.

According to the report, in return for freezing those key parts of the overhaul there would be reform of the use of the so-called “reasonableness” test used by the court, as well as changes to the powers of government legal advisers.

However, Netanyahu told his Likud party on Monday that his government’s temporarily suspended plans for a radical shakeup of the judiciary are “not dead,” according to statements leaked from Likud’s internal Knesset faction meeting and broadcast on Monday evening.

“Those who know what’s going on, know, and others will [know] in the future,” Netanyahu added. “I know the issue is causing a certain frustration, and a situation whereby we’re not sharing everything at certain moments, but it’s for a good cause.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at Likud’s Knesset faction meeting, May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Notably, according to Channel 12, which broadcast the excerpts, Netanyahu did not cite his previously stated desire to achieve a compromise with the opposition.

This, the report speculated, was apparently out of a desire to pacify his coalition partners, who are pressing him to advance the current, highly controversial legislation which would largely subjugate the judiciary to the control of the governing coalition.

According to a Likud representative, however, Netanyahu did tell his fellow party members that Likud must make every effort in the ongoing discussions.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, and National Unity leader Benny Gantz, refused to confirm Monday that a deal package was on the table.

Gantz stressed that his National Unity party would only agree to a deal that closes the door on changing the country’s system of governance.

“I am telling the public clearly and directly: There will be no agreements without a clear and guaranteed commitment that there will be no continuation of legislation touching upon Israel’s governance,” Gantz said at the outset of National Unity’s Knesset faction meeting, and “unless we reach broad agreement and there is a mechanism to ensure that [the promises] are indeed implemented.”

Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid (left) and National Unity head MK Benny Gantz in the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The two sides are expected to renew direct discussions on a potential compromise at the President’s Residence on Tuesday.

In recent days negotiations have been held with the sides sitting separately as the team from the President’s Residence hosting the talks acts as intermediary.

The overhaul legislation has been frozen since late March, with Netanyahu saying he was giving a chance for talks with the opposition under the auspices of Herzog to try to find a broadly accepted compromise for judicial reform. But months of talks have not produced a breakthrough, and pressure has increased within the coalition to resume the legislative push.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin has threatened to quit his position if the judicial overhaul legislation does not end up passing.

Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.

On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people demonstrated nationwide against the judicial overhaul plan for the 21st week.

Carrie Keller-Lynn and Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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