Dead or alive?
That’s the question lingering in the Knesset corridors as lawmakers try to take the vital signs of the government’s contentious judicial overhaul, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immobilized eight weeks ago.
“The reform is dead!” outspoken Likud MK Tally Gotliv keeps persisting, and, like the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” she is usually hushed and silenced by her fellow party members, who adamantly insist that the overhaul is alive and well and soon to be resuscitated. The leaders of the anti-reform protests, who were suspicious from the outset, also believe the reform is still with us, awaiting Netanyahu’s decision to jump-start it back into action.
For the time being, the supposedly moribund judicial reform is in limbo as President Isaac Herzog’s compromise talks continue in what many consider to be a futile effort to reach an agreement. Alternating between the classy Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem hotel and beach-side Tel Aviv offices, the coalition and opposition teams have been convening once or twice a week in an effort to hammer out consensual judicial and legal changes. Far away from the noisy and closely scrutinized Knesset, the two sides are dissecting the components of the judicial overhaul in a relatively sterile environment and what is generally reported as a good and constructive atmosphere.
Notwithstanding minor understandings, however, the presidential parley hasn’t produced any essential or significant breakthrough on the core elements of the original blueprint concocted by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Justice Committee Chairman Simcha Rothman, including the critical issue of the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee, which the government is seeking to control by itself.
Herzog hasn’t set a deadline for the talks, enabling them to schmooze their way through the Knesset’s recent spring recess and the government’s current state budget deliberations, thus keeping the judicial overhaul hanging somewhere between life and death. Opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz have stipulated that the coalition not proceed with any judicial changes as long as talks are ongoing. Levin and Rothman, for their part, are pledging to revive their original and controversial reform if and when the compromise efforts collapse.
And with no apparent progress on the horizon, both sides are starting to lose their patience: The anti-reform protest groups are pressuring Lapid and Gantz to retire from the “fraudulent” presidential talks and to refrain from making any compromise on Israeli democracy; Netanyahu’s coalition members are looking beyond the budget vote later this month and eyeing the possibility to then pass at least part of the overhaul with their 64-seat majority.
Levin was quoted on Channel 12 this week as saying he plans to move ahead with his legislation, with or without an agreement with the opposition, reiterating his threat to resign if the reform is nixed. Netanyahu, according to well-informed sources, flatly dismissed Levin’s threats, signaling a growing rift with one of his closest political loyalists.
Netanyahu and Levin are no longer on the same page, Likud sources have been whispering. The justice minister’s aggressive legislation blitz overshadowed the government’s debut, pushed the country into a deep political, economic and diplomatic crisis and brought Netanyahu and the Likud’s public stature to one of their all-time lows.
Since the prime minister decided to freeze the process eight weeks ago, he has engaged in extensive damage control, diverting his attention to security and economy and halting the reform until the presidential talks are resolved, one way or another.
In phone calls with foreign leaders, appearances on US media and in discreet discussions with international rating agencies, Netanyahu has repeatedly voiced his commitment to consensual changes and has stressed the Herzog-sponsored constitutional process as his main goal.
His close confidant and designated representative to the talks, Ron Dermer, has been widely praised by the opposition as a positive voice, sincerely devoted to finding a wide consensual solution to the crisis. Levin’s proxy expert on the coalition team, Kohelet Forum’s Dr. Aviad Bakshi, has reportedly been less constructive and cooperative.
The people against the judicial overhaul
On the opposition side of the table, the mixed Lapid-Gantz delegation is also marked by internal differences. Former justice minister Gideon Sa’ar and Yesh Atid delegates have been presenting far tougher positions than Gantz’s confidant and representative, Chili Tropper, known as a proponent of compromises and national reconciliation.
Thus, with no apparent way to bridge the fundamental differences and against the backdrop of growing public impatience, talks have recently entered a faltering phase. In an attempt to stop their collapse, the president’s team has been trying to negotiate an intermediate framework to keep negotiations underway.
First, they convinced the coalition to backtrack from plans to postpone the scheduled parliamentary secret ballot vote on the representatives on the Judicial Selection Committee, a move that was likely to blow up talks altogether and proceed to convene the committee in its current composition, while maintaining the status quo.
Then, to continue the freeze on the Levin-Rothman legislation and enable the extension of the negotiations, the president suggested a new formula: to reach and announce preliminary understandings on two of the sideline topics on the table – the clause of reasonableness and the legal advising to the government – while bypassing the core divides, such as the judges’ selection process and the override clause, and postponing the tough issues for later.
Both sides are still reluctant to accept Herzog’s latest framework: Lapid and Gantz refuse to give up their demand for a complete burial of the reform, or at least a public commitment none of it will be promoted in the upcoming Knesset session, while Levin and Rothman insist on revitalizing and advancing at least part of it after the budget is approved. But none of the hawkish sides wants to take responsibility for the demise of the negotiations and are already preparing for the blame game.
With the coalition maintaining the judicial overhaul is still alive and with the anti-reform movement pushing to declare its death, President Herzog is trying to ventilate his reconciliation process.
The opposition suspects his efforts are designed to serve Netanyahu’s main goal and interest – to delay the decision and freeze the reform in a liminal state; the presidential process enables the prime minister to recover from the collateral damage caused by the overhaul, tamp down the popular dissent and perhaps even receive his invitation to the White House, while keeping its spirit alive without disappointing Levin and his electoral base. If talks break down, Netanyahu will be left with no excuse to stall and avoid the reform’s reincarnation.