Israel's coalition, opposition close to judicial reform agreements - Liberman

National Unity chairman Benny Gantz denied that the reported agreement was in the offing.

 President Isaac Herzog leads the first round of judicial reform negotiations in the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 28, 2023 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog leads the first round of judicial reform negotiations in the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 28, 2023
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

The coalition and opposition are close to finalizing their first agreement with regard to the government's proposed judicial reforms and may announce it as soon as Wednesday, Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman said to the press ahead of his party's weekly meeting on Monday.

According to a number of reports, the opposition parties that are taking part in the talks – Yesh Atid and National Unity – will agree to legislate two relatively small parts of the reform, in exchange for the coalition announcing that it is freezing all other judicial reform legislation for an extended period, possibly a year or more.

The two agreed-upon parts would enable government ministers to hire private representation when their policies are challenged in court if the Attorney-General does not agree to represent them; and limit the Supreme Court's ability to use the "reasonableness factor" when evaluating the legality of government decisions.

Yisrael Beytenu is not a part of the talks, and Liberman voiced harsh criticism of the agreement, arguing that at its core, its intention is to bring Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri back into the government. The Supreme Court used the "reasonableness clause" in January to strike down the legality of Deri's appointment as Health Minister and Interior Minister, due to Deri's recurring criminal convictions and attempts to mislead the court during the most recent conviction in 2022, that he was intending to leave politics.

"I hope they [National Unity chair MK Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid chair MK Yair Lapid] wake up and do not give this a hand, because as soon as Deri returns to the Netanyahu government, it is a significant strengthening for Netanyahu's haredi, messianic coalition," Liberman said, adding that he would "everything in his power" to prevent the agreement.

 Finance Minister and Israel Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 12, 2022 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Finance Minister and Israel Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 12, 2022 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The agreement could be reached as soon as Wednesday, after opposition representative MK Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid) is appointed to the Judicial Selection Committee. Both Gantz and Lapid threatened that if the opposition is not given one of the Knesset's two spots on the committee, as is tradition, they will leave the judicial reform talks.

There are currently seven candidates from the coalition for the Knesset's two spots on the Judicial Selection Committee. The vote is anonymous, and therefore if the coalition puts forward more than one candidate, there is no way to ensure ahead of time that one spot will go to the opposition.

Gantz denies reports of agreement

Minutes later, Gantz denied that such an agreement was in the offing.

The National Unity chairman demanded that first and foremost a member of the opposition be chosen to serve on the committee, and then the talks will continue. MK Gideon Sa'ar, who is one of Gantz's representatives in the talks at the president's residence, also said that agreements had not been reached yet.

However, Gantz did say that "no political consideration will stand between us and what is right for the State of Israel," implying that he may be willing to make moves that the anti-reform camp may not like.

Likud MK Hanoch Milvetsky, who is a member of the coalition's negotiating team, said on 103FM on Monday that the sides had indeed reached essential agreements on the issues of the attorney general and the reasonableness clause, and that the coalition was demanding that these become law in exchange for giving the opposition a spot on the Judicial Selection Committee.

"If there are agreements, and dialogue continues in order to reach agreements, then in this spirit it would be correct to enable [the opposition] a representative [on the committee] and move forward. If I know that we are not heading towards agreements, then we need to change course … and continue advancing the reforms of the judicial system that we believe to be necessary," he said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich both said during their remarks to the press ahead of their parties' faction meetings that the judicial reform would continue with or without the opposition's agreement.

Ben-Gvir said that the coalition "did not have a mandate not to advance the reforms," which he claimed the majority of Israelis support.

Smotrich added, "Until now, it does not seem that the other side arrived at [the talks] with the same intentions [to reach agreements], but rather to waste time and force its opinion – so I have news for them: in the last election the majority of the public voted for it, and the judicial reform will advance. If you want to arrive at agreement, you are welcome to. If not, do not disturb us," the finance minister said.

Channel 12 reported on Monday that other than Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin formed a "pact" against giving the opposition a spot on the Judicial Selection Committee, and are applying pressure so that the coalition chooses to occupy both spots. The coalition could then offer to have one of the representatives resign and give the opposition a spot if the opposition follows through on its side of the agreement.

Likud MK Avichai Boaron and a number of right-wing NGO leaders held a press conference on Monday evening, and called on the government to move ahead with the reform laws. Boaron said that while the Likud was willing to postpone legislation regarding the Judicial Selection Committee, the Left cannot bar it from eventually pushing forwards with the entire reform.

"If the Left is not brave enough to reach agreements, we call for the government to go ahead with the Attorney General Law and the Reasonableness Clause Law as a first step, and then continue with the rest," Boaron said.

The organizations in the press conference included Im Tirzu, Tkuma 2023, Bochrim Bahayim, Regavim and others.

According to current law, the committee includes three High Court justices, one of whom is the chief justice; two ministers, one of whom is the justice minister; two Knesset members; and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association (IBA). One each of the judges, ministers, MKs and IBA representatives must be a woman.

The High Court members of the committee are Chief Justice Esther Hayut, justice Uzi Fogelman and justice Yizhak Amit; the second minister has yet to be chosen, but Ynet reported on Monday that Netanyahu was considering appointing National Missions Minister Orit Struk (Religious Zionist Party). The two Knesset members will be elected on Wednesday; and the IBA is voting for its chairperson and executive committee on June 20, and its representatives on the committee will be known soon after. The committee could therefore be ready to convene by the end of June. However, the justice minister has the power to decide if and when the committee convenes, and Levin may choose not to do so.

The makeup of the committee is one of the most contentious issues in the government’s judicial reforms.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin and other proponents of the judicial reforms argue that the Bar Association members have an interest in siding with the judges before whom they appear in court. This gives the judges a de facto majority in the committee and the ability to choose whomever they see fit. Levin argued that the elected representatives of the people should be the ones appointing the nation’s judges, and therefore proposed to amend the committee’s makeup such that the coalition has a majority.

The opposition, however, argued that giving the coalition complete power over judicial appointments will turn these appointments into part of the political give-and-take, and thus create a system where judges are chosen due to their political affiliations and not their skill or expertise.

President Isaac Herzog said on Monday at a ceremony for outstanding IDF reserve units, "Facing external threats, the rules in the State of Israel have been clear since the beginning of our existence: as citizens, reservists have full rights for every opinion or protest like all citizens in a healthy democracy. As reserve soldiers wearing uniforms – refusing to serve is outside the limit. Israel's security cannot be endangered."

The reservists protest movement against the judicial reforms said in response, "Honorable president, in a meeting with us you promised to risk your life for democracy. But it seems that instead of fighting for the truth, you are continuing a spin that never existed. The only people who refused to serve that we know are in the government, and in the false spin that you swallowed. Stand up against those who want unlimited power, and we the reservists will safeguard Israel as Jewish and democratic for generations. Do not ever forget, there can only be a People's Army in a democracy."