Ex-justice minister: Rejection a 'failure of leadership'

‘Unacceptable, insulting’: PM, coalition dismiss Herzog’s judicial reform framework

Netanyahu: Proposal ‘perpetuates the existing situation’; coalition expected to press on with its legislation; opposition leaders offer cautious backing, pan government’s rejection

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media ahead of his departure to Germany on March 15, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media ahead of his departure to Germany on March 15, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners on Wednesday night quickly rejected President Isaac Herzog’s long-percolating proposal for a broadly agreed-upon judicial overhaul. Opposition leaders expressed cautious approval for the framework as a basis for talks, while lashing the government for so readily dismissing what Herzog had presented as the last, best chance to avoid a catastrophic tear in the fabric of Israeli society.

Herzog’s plan, compiled after long weeks of deliberations with numerous legal experts from across the political spectrum, seeks to address critical aspects of the relationship between Israel’s branches of government, including the selection of judges and judicial review of Knesset legislation, and would also enshrine fundamental civil rights in Israel’s Basic Laws.

Unveiling it on Wednesday evening, the president said his framework was meant to serve as a basis for legislation in the Knesset, to be advanced with broad support.

But any hope the proposal might bring the coalition and opposition closer to an agreement was quickly dashed, as within an hour of its debut, it was roundly rejected by top right-wing lawmakers.

Before boarding a flight to Berlin, Netanyahu said: “Unfortunately, the things the president proposes were not agreed on by the coalition, and central elements of the proposal he made just perpetuate the existing situation, and don’t bring the necessary balance between the branches of government in Israel. This is the unfortunate truth.”

“Any attempt to reach an agreement and talk is surely appropriate,” he added, but blamed the opposition for not being willing to come to the table. “Coalition representatives went and talked with the president time and time again, while opposition representatives were not ready for even one discussion.”

Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs described Herzog’s proposal as a “unilateral” initiative that was not endorsed by anyone in the coalition.

President Isaac Herzog presents his proposed alternative framework on the judicial overhaul, on March 15, 2023 (Video screenshot)

Transportation Minister Miri Regev of Likud said the proposal appeared to have been authored by Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut.

“This framework insults the intelligence of the public. It takes a clear side, against the nation and the sovereign,” she said.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev speaks during a test ride on the new Light Rail route between Kiryat Yovel and Hadassah Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, January 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud MK Boaz Bismuth called it “the framework of the opposition, not the president.”

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, also Likud, expressed appreciation for Herzog’s efforts but said the outline “does not provide an answer to the ills of the relationship between the judiciary, the Knesset and the government.”

“We have a responsibility for democracy, and the rule of the people,” he added. “The Knesset is the loyal representative of the will of the people, and it decides. If possible, by broad agreement, and if not — by a majority of votes,” Ohana says.

MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Unity’s Gideon Sa’ar, the former justice minister and a member of the opposition, said the coalition’s outright rejection of the plan was “evidence of a failure of leadership and historic short-sightedness.

“The president’s plan in its entirety is broad, balanced and fundamentally decent,” said Sa’ar. “Full responsibility will be placed on those who miss the opportunity to prevent a severe rift in the people at this fateful hour.”

In a joint statement Wednesday night, faction leaders in Netanyahu’s 64-seat coalition also slammed Herzog’s offer as “one-sided, biased and unacceptable.”

Given its resounding rejection of the Herzog framework, the coalition is expected to press on with its fast-advancing legislation — a package that would bring Israel’s judiciary largely under coalition control, almost completely prevent the High Court of Justice from acting as a brake on the executive and legislature, leave basic rights unprotected, and give near-unlimited power to the governing majority. While Justice Minister Yariv Levin has said he seeks to enact the entire package before the Knesset breaks for Passover at the end of the month, the coalition’s prime focus is likely to be on securing final Knesset approval for its overhaul of the judicial selection committee, under which it will appoint High Court justices.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, said he respects Herzog but dismissed the proposal as a concession to opponents of the overhaul.

“The people had their say in the last elections and this must be the starting point of any discussion,” he tweeted.

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party head MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset, on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, tweeted a two-word response to Herzog’s offer: “Reform now.”

The Kohelet Policy Forum, the institution that formulated the ideological foundations for the government’s radical judicial overhaul program welcomed Herzog’s attempt at compromise but said the proposal itself avoided the issues the existing process is trying to resolve.

“The outline presented by the president exacerbates the problems the judicial reform is designed to resolve, does not address others and abandons broad agreements that have already been reached,” the think tank said, a day after it called for compromise. The organization vowed to continue to work toward more agreement on the issues.

Right-wing organization Movement for Governance and Democracy (Meshilut) — affiliated with MK Simcha Rothman who is one of the architects of the coalition’s shakeup — denounced the proposal, saying that not only does it not offer a real compromise, but it also worsens the existing situation.

“The coalition did well to reject this bad plan. A compromise should recognize the needs and desires of both sides, not just one side of the nation,” the organization added.

Even before Herzog spoke, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party rejected his proposals.

“Your honor the president, the people’s framework was determined exactly four months ago,” Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi tweeted, referring to the most recent general elections. “We’re taking care of it.”

Netanyahu had huddled with other coalition officials throughout the afternoon to discuss Herzog’s offer. Reporting on alleged behind-the-scenes talks, Channel 12 said that Netanyahu had in fact considered accepting the president’s proposal, but Justice Minister Levin flatly rejected it and threatened to resign, leading the premier to concede to his position.

Levin was said to be adamant that the coalition must control the appointment of justices, a centerpiece of the coalition’s legislation, and a position that the Herzog framework does not support.

Levin has reportedly threatened to quit in the past if the legislation were even temporarily paused to allow for compromise talks.

Rothman, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, was “the most militant opponent in the room,” according to Channel 12 news.

Likud denied the veracity of the Channel 12 report on the closed-door meetings.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, speaks on the phone outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office at the Knesset, March 15, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

The TV report speculated that Herzog may have decided to unveil his proposals despite Likud’s objections, in the hope that they will be widely endorsed by experts and the public, and thus prompt coalition and opposition politicians to compromise.

In a first such endorsement, Herzog’s plan was backed by Arnon Bar-David, chief of the powerful Histadrut labor federation, and Dov Amitai, head of the Israeli Presidency of Business Organizations, who met with the president earlier in the week to offer their support.

They called on the government to “stop the economic and social chaos and bring hope back” by launching negotiations based on the framework.

Bar-David warned earlier this week that his union will not “stand idly by” if the government fails to reach a compromise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid warned that Israel was being “torn to pieces” by the government’s legislative push, excoriating it for not approaching the president’s framework “with respect for his position, the seriousness with which it was written and the values on which it is based.”

He said its response “disgraces the office of the president, makes a mockery of the seriousness of the current situation and undermines the idea that we are one people.”

He added: “So long as the coalition continues with its extreme and destructive legislation, the threat to Israel’s democracy remains and we will continue to fight for an Israel that is Jewish, democratic, liberal and strong.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, left and National Unity party chief Benny Gantz, right, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The opposition’s National Unity party said it “accepts the president’s framework as one piece” and “as a basis for legislation, instead of the existing dangerous legislative outline.”

Led by Benny Gantz, the party urged Netanyahu to adopt the framework.

“We call on Netanyahu and all the elements in the political system to behave responsibly, at this fateful hour, to adopt the outline, and to start promoting it immediately.”

Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman praised Herzog and said the proposal could serve as “a true basis for honest dialogue between the sides.”

“The moment the coalition stops plowing ahead with the current legislation, we will join direct dialogue on the basis of the framework that was presented,” he said.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett urged the sides to adopt the proposal “to prevent a civil war.”

“There are no winners or losers here,” he said in a statement.

National protest organizers praised Herzog’s “honest efforts to prevent a rift in the nation” while slamming the coalition for rejecting calls to halt its legislative push.

“Tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of Israelis will go out for a day of ‘escalating resistance to dictatorship,'” they said in a statement, referring to planned nationwide protests Thursday. “Only continuing the determined protest will stop the regime coup.”

Labor MK Naama Lazimi tweeted: “The people’s framework is in the streets every week. The people’s framework is the foundation of the country, which was established as a democracy. The people’s framework is the reform that’s needed here — a constitution.”

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