Yesh Atid vows to block politicization of judges as judicial overhaul talks resume

Centrist party says it’ll push entrenchment of Declaration of Independence; MK Rothman says he opposes vetoes over judge selection, though current bill gives government this power

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)
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)

Talks aimed at reaching a broad agreement over the government’s controversial judicial overhaul legislation were set to renew at the President’s Residence on Monday, a day after the Labor party withdrew its negotiating team claiming that deals were being secretly reached behind its back.

Negotiating teams from the Yesh Atid and National Unity opposition parties were scheduled to hold talks with representatives of the coalition for “concentrated and in-depth” negotiations, according to a statement from President Isaac Herzog’s office on Sunday.

The latest talks will “deal with the core issues,” after previous rounds focused on procedural matters and establishing trust between the sides, the statement read.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid declared it was duty-bound to preserve the current Judicial Selection Committee “to avoid creating a situation where politicians can appoint judges in Israel,” in a statement released on Monday morning.

The makeup of the panel that appoints judges has been a major obstacle in establishing an agreement between the government and the opposition.

“The Israeli contract has been breached, and we need to fix it,” the Yesh Atid statement read.

Yesh Atid said it would push for a discussion at the talks on a proposal to entrench the values of the Declaration of Independence in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

Yesh Atid’s delegation to compromise talks on judicial overhaul at the President’s Residence on March 28, 2023. (Courtesy)

Labor said Sunday its representatives would cease taking part in the talks after learning about “conversations taking place in the dark and deals being made far from the public eye, without our involvement.”

It did not offer further details on the alleged deals.

Fellow opposition party Yisrael Beytenu has stayed away from the talks altogether and protest organizers have continued to express heavy skepticism, alleging they are a ruse to quell the protest movement and advance the legislation quietly.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Knesset Constitution Committee head MK Simcha Rothman, who is leading the overhaul push, said he opposed any veto on the selection of judges, contradicting the content of the existing controversial judicial appointments bill.

“As long as any proposal doesn’t contain a veto on who sits on the court, allows the public to have a say on who the judges are, and prevents the possibility of a takeover by a single political wing, it is something that can work,” he said.

MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee during a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Such a stance would be a complete about-face from Rothman. The government’s efforts until now have been aimed at controlling the panel.

The current legislation, which is ready to be brought for a second and third reading at the Knesset plenum within 24 hours if the coalition so chooses, allows the government to use its proposed majority on the selection panel to appoint the first two Supreme Court seats that become vacant in each term — handing it a virtual veto on the appointments.

The government will also be handed control over all appointments in the lower courts.

“These are not extreme demands. The problem is that in the discourse in the last two months, there has been so much fake news it’s become illegitimate to even say that the people should have a say over who are the judges,” Rothman added.

Asked about Rothman’s comments, Karine Elharrar, a Yesh Atid lawmaker and negotiating team member, told Army Radio on Monday that the coalition representatives have not mentioned a willingness to compromise on their proposed veto of judges yet.

“We still haven’t heard this, but I assume we will,” she said.

Earlier Sunday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that the negotiations at Herzog’s residence have produced a potential compromise on the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee.

According to the reported framework, the committee will be staffed neither by politicians nor judges. Instead, representatives will be appointed by politicians and judges according to an agreed-upon set of criteria. The representatives will come from a range of fields and will be legal figures, academics, researchers, retired judges, and others.

Under the proposal, the coalition would still be able to appoint a majority of representatives to the committee. After a certain unspecified period of time, the representatives would become completely independent and would no longer require the support of the MK or judge that nominated them.

Tens of thousands of Israeli protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)e

Despite the ongoing talks, according to a Channel 12 news report on Sunday, the coalition intends to advance one of the central bills of its plan — one that would severely limit the power of ministry legal counsels — when the Knesset reconvenes for its summer session at the end of the month.

The report characterized the move as part of a desire by the government to score a clear win for the coalition, even as many other elements of its plan are currently frozen.

The judicial appointments legislation was set to be passed into law at the end of March, but mass protests, widespread strikes, opposition from numerous sectors of Israeli society, pleas from Herzog, and the intense opposition of reservists in some critical IDF units forced the government to back down and enter negotiations.

They say the legislation in its current form will drastically weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Proponents of the government’s overhaul plans say reforms are needed to rein in politically motivated judicial activism.

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