Will judicial reform take a backseat as Saudis, Biden demand attention?

INSIDE POLITICS: Benjamin Netanyahu is considering issuing a unilateral statement that the judicial reform will be frozen, hoping this will lead to a compromise. But no one believes anything he says.

 A DEMONSTRATION in Tel Aviv against the government’s judicial reform plans last weekend.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A DEMONSTRATION in Tel Aviv against the government’s judicial reform plans last weekend.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Between dealing with the Supreme Court in Jerusalem and the White House in Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched his “Hot September” this week, or at least that’s how politicians and analysts have headlined this crucial and decisive month for his own personal future, as well as the future of his government.

On one hand, Netanyahu is very much concerned about the High Court of Justice deliberations on the petitions against the government that are set to begin next week, which may lead to a judicial crisis and further deteriorate the already precarious political, economic, security, and social situations.

Meanwhile, he is impatiently awaiting an invitation to the White House, or at least to a meeting with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, so that he can put at least one crisis behind him, move toward normalization with Saudi Arabia, and steer his government in a different direction.

This is how President Isaac Herzog’s Outline 3.0 came into being in recent weeks. The latest framework designed to put a freeze on the judicial overhaul was dramatically leaked this week as “Hot September” took off with a bang. Since the coalition canceled the reasonableness standard at the end of July, Netanyahu’s people have been conducting intensive discussions with Herzog’s people on an outline to backtrack from the judicial overhaul, leaving Netanyahu’s dignity intact, and return to the initial goals he set for his sixth tenure, chief among them advancing peace efforts with Saudi Arabia.

“He’s no longer pushing for [Justice Minister Yariv] Levin’s reform; he has changed the disc playing in his head,” his people keep reiterating.

 JUSTICE MINISTER Yariv Levin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the voting in the Knesset plenum on Monday. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
JUSTICE MINISTER Yariv Levin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the voting in the Knesset plenum on Monday. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Netanyahu designated two of his close associates – Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and attorney Michael Rabilo – to formulate and draft the details together with Herzog’s team. From week to week, as September approached, Netanyahu’s generosity expanded, and his eagerness to come up with a finalized document intensified even more.

Saudi Arabia, Joe Biden, Hezbollah, and more all demand attention amid a judicial crisis

The crisis in the IDF, threats of war from Hezbollah, messages of peace from Saudi Arabia, efforts to secure a meeting with Biden, and especially the impending judicial crisis have intensified Netanyahu’s sense of urgency to achieve a compromise in the near future – or at least the outward appearance that one will be coming soon – so that the honorable figures in the Supreme Court in Jerusalem and the White House in Washington, will see and be aware. Netanyahu fears that the High Court of Justice will strike down one of the laws passed by his government, so he wants to send a message to the judges that he is taking his foot off the gas pedal, and that they, too, should declare a ceasefire and either delay or refrain from a making a decision one way or the other. More than anything, at least according to his close associates, he is concerned about the possibility of the court striking down the incapacitation amendment, which fortifies his political standing.

“This show is all for the Supreme Court, so that Esther Hayut and Gali Baharav-Miara will see that he is willing to compromise, and perhaps this will convince them not to strike down the Basic Laws,” one of his close associates said this week. “The main issue that worries Netanyahu is the incapacitation issue. He is convinced that if the Supreme Court intervenes, the judicial system will oust him, and that is why this is the issue that most troubles his peace of mind at the moment.”

At the same time, the clear messages from Washington – that without halting the judicial overhaul, dreams of peace with Saudi Arabia will dissipate – persuaded Netanyahu to compromise more than he has ever before.

ACCORDING TO the latest proposal that Netanyahu submitted to Herzog, the government will declare an 18-month freeze of any further action connected with the judicial overhaul process, soften and backtrack on the cancellation of the reasonableness standard, and, most importantly, give up on the major changes to the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee, which is the heart of the judicial overhaul proposed by Levin.

According to sources in Netanyahu’s circle, the prime minister wanted the president to unilaterally announce the new outline, for the government to adopt it, and then to roll the ball into the opposition’s court. Up until now, the opposition has officially refused to engage in any negotiations, due to the justified suspicion that Netanyahu is only using them to buy time and delay the hearings in the High Court. Coalition members, on the other hand, don’t believe that the opposition is a genuine partner for negotiations. They accuse Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz of succumbing to the intransigence of the leaders of the popular anti-government protest movement. Therefore, according to sources, “Netanyahu is pushing for the president to announce the outline, even without the opposition’s agreement, or at least to allow a one-sided government declaration of a freeze.”

Herzog did indeed want to close the deal, but he didn’t want to be all by himself in the arena. At the beginning of the week, he updated Gantz with the details of the emerging plan, as well as some of the protest movement leaders, so he could gauge their reaction to the proposal. Lapid had already informed the president that he refused to negotiate before the deliberations in the High Court took place, so he remained outside the picture. However, Gantz’s National Unity Party, especially former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and other senior military leaders, are highly concerned about damage to the IDF’s readiness that has resulted from the reservists’ and the pilots’ strike, and are therefore more open and receptive to compromises. Supposedly, Netanyahu is as well, and so Gantz held a serious consultation with Gideon Sa’ar and Chili Tropper, but before they had a chance to respond to the proposal, it was leaked to the media and then went viral on social networks.

One hour later, the coalition leaders began their barrage: Otzma Yehudit Party head Itamar Ben-Gvir tweeted that all six of his party’s representatives would vote against the capitulation. The Religious Zionist Party used similar terminology. MK Avichay Buaron of the Likud added, “We cannot agree to this,” and Netanyahu’s spokesman quickly denied it, saying, “There is no agreement.” Opposition and protest movement leaders reacted swiftly, as well, informing the president, Gantz and Lapid that they have “no mandate” to make any compromises on democracy.

The new outline met a fate similar to that of its predecessors. In February, Herzog first presented a compromise proposal that included freezing the legislative process, and then in March he unveiled his “People’s Framework” proposal while addressing the nation, in another attempt to stop the coalition’s judicial stampede. Both attempts were met with immediate and chilly reactions from Netanyahu’s coalition partners. Herzog’s Outline 3.0 hadn’t even been formally drafted yet when its premature dissemination apparently stopped it in its tracks, or at least pushed it 10 steps backward.

Early the next morning, Levin was already up and giving interviews to clarify that, from his perspective, there was no agreement, and the proposal in question was not at all acceptable to him. This was his claim, even though Netanyahu’s envoys had taken great care to keep him well informed of all the details throughout the process, and he was kept up to date regarding everything the president was doing.

Once again, the sharp response voiced by Levin, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich highlighted the difficult strains put on Netanyahu by the government’s extremists. Even if the prime minister is interested in compromise, or says he is, he has no control over the situation. Even when a plan is perfectly tailored to his needs and is designed to serve his own interests, it is immediately obliterated by his coalition partners. He is trying to reach a “broad agreement” in order to open up channels to the White House and Saudi Arabia, but every attempt he makes at compromise is met with a threat that shakes the government’s foundation.

While Herzog tried behind the scenes to save his peace plan, the two designated benefactors – Netanyahu and Gantz – bickered and conducted a grandiose war of words.

Tuesday morning, Gantz announced that he would respond to the events in a prime-time televised speech. Exactly half an hour before that, Netanyahu released a recorded statement in which he called on Gantz to engage in direct dialogue, adding emotionally, “especially since we’re both called Benjamin.”

Gantz made good use of the screen time he’d been allotted to give a powerful speech from the opposition, placing the ball squarely back in Netanyahu’s court. Gantz admitted that the opposition was willing to talk, but unfortunately “there’s no one to talk to” since Netanyahu has been taken hostage by the extremists in his coalition. He left the door open for talks, though, “in case the moderate entities within the coalition gain strength in the future.”

Shortly thereafter, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Likud ministers Nir Barkat and Ofir Akunis issued statements in support of compromises and agreements, and the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties, who are more concerned about the draft law crisis than about the judicial reform, also expressed readiness to support the president’s outline. Nonetheless, the Otzma Yehudit Party continues to issue ominous warnings not to surrender, and periodically reminds Netanyahu that the coalition holding him up is shaky.

TALK OF the agreements and compromises may have worked well for Netanyahu’s political spin, as he tries to navigate passage between the Supreme Court and the White House in this “Hot September.” However, the sharp reactions within the coalition burst the bubble and likely killed the most recent outline.

Likud MKs are trying to pass the blame onto Lapid and Gantz, claiming that they are the ones who refuse to compromise, due to their own narrow political interests. But Netanyahu’s close associates admit that he is the only person who can bring about a solution to this problem. The choice between compromising or imploding is in his hands.

Now, without any collaboration with the opposition, Netanyahu is considering issuing a unilateral statement that the judicial overhaul will be frozen, hoping this will lead to a compromise. His main problem, though, is that no one in the government or in the courts believes anything he says at this point. Only actions will make a difference. Especially since Levin and other senior members of the coalition are escalating their attacks against the Supreme Court judges and the attorney-general on a daily basis.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.