US says overhaul consensus crucial as Netanyahu coalition unilaterally restarts push

White House reiterates importance of ‘broadest possible base of popular support’ for judicial reforms as bill shackling court on ‘reasonableness’ doctrine heads to committee

Israelis protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside PM Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, on May 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside PM Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, on May 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The White House on Monday said it opposed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to advance judicial reforms without support from across the aisle, after leaders in Jerusalem readied to begin passing controversial legislation as compromise talks with the opposition broke down.

The rebuke, following months in which the US had toned its rhetoric against the government over the plan, followed swiftly on the heels of a decision earlier in the day by leaders of Netanyahu’s governing coalition leaders to pass a bill curtailing the court’s power to judge government decisions against a “reasonableness” test. They also announced plans to push legislation giving the coalition control over judicial appointments when the Knesset reconvenes in the fall.

“The president has said consistently, both privately and publicly, that fundamental reforms like these require a broad basis of support to be durable and sustained, and we hope there will be genuine compromise,” a White House National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement sent to reporters seeking comment on Jerusalem’s moves.

The coalition leaders’ decision was likely a death knell for the stalled talks hosted by President Isaac Herzog to work towards a consensus solution. Moments before coalition heads ended their Monday afternoon meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, opposition leaders said they would not return to the compromise negotiations if the government unilaterally legislated judicial changes.

“Ultimately, it is up to Israelis to find the best path forward,” the White House statement added. “But as close friends of Israel, we urge them to reach a compromise with the broadest possible base of popular support. We look forward to working with Israel to advance the interests and democratic values that have been at the heart of our relationship for decades.”

Softening the criticism somewhat was the fact that the White House statement came in response to reporters’ questions and was not an administration enterprise.

Despite clashing with the Biden administration on several matters, Netanyahu has shown himself to be sensitive to US criticism, and his government’s decision to alter the proposed legislation and pass it piecemeal may have been aimed at swatting away potential White House brickbats.

Before Netanyahu agreed to pause the overhaul in late March in order to allow for talks with the opposition, the Biden administration had been gradually raising its voice against the package, noting that the countries’ shared commitment to strong democratic institutions is what has helped bolster their bilateral relationship for so many decades.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets then-US vice president Joe Biden upon his arrival to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool, via AP)

Earlier this month, US Vice President Kamala Harris made a point of stressing the importance of an independent judiciary during a speech at an event hosted by the Israeli embassy in Washington.

In late March, US President Joe Biden said Netanyahu would not be receiving an invite to the White House in the “near term” due to Washington’s displeasure with the direction the prime minister is taking the country.

The judicial overhaul has inspired months of massive protests, with critics warning that it will effectively snuff out Israel’s democratic system of checks and balances by concentrating power in government hands. On Monday, opposition leader Yair Lapid blasted the coalition’s plan to limit judicial review as “full-on regime change.”

During the meeting of coalition leaders, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir urged Netanyahu to allow the passage of the entire overhaul package.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

After Netanyahu told coalition leaders during their Monday meeting of his preferred plan of action, Ben Gvir pushed back, saying it didn’t go far enough. He argued that splitting up and shrinking the package will not lead the opponents of the overhaul to cease their mass protests.

“This is our opportunity to pass the core of the reform — [restructuring] the Judicial Selection Committee,” he told Netanyahu, according to Channel 12, which appeared to have been leaked the quote from the national security minister’s office.

Ben Gvir’s position was backed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, an architect of the overhaul, as well as Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman, Channel 12 said.

The coalition is expected to bring a bill to limit the judicial test to a Knesset committee on Wednesday. Rothman told The Times of Israel the bill would be similar to one submitted by Levin earlier this year, and that he is “ready” for the restart.

“I knew it would come back, the question was when,” he said.

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