After tens of thousands protested outside, the Knesset passed the first reading of the first bill of Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposed judicial reform package by a vote of 63-47 late Monday night.
If it passes second and third readings, the controversial legislation will give the coalition an automatic majority in the Judicial Appointments Committee and significantly weaken the powers of the Supreme Court to overturn laws.
“A big night and a big day,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted after the vote in the Knesset. “The people exercised their right to vote in the elections and the people’s representatives will exercise their right to vote here in Israel’s Knesset. It’s called democracy.”
לילה גדול ויום גדול— Benjamin Netanyahu - בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) February 20, 2023
He did, however, leave the door open for dialogue with the opposition based on President Isaac Herzog’s call for a compromise. On several occasions over the past few days, Netanyahu has signaled that the government is ready to engage in negotiations with the opposition over the legislation, but so far, nothing has materialized.
While Netanyahu sat down with opposition leader Yair Lapid in the Knesset on Monday for a security briefing, he is unlikely to get Lapid or Benny Gantz to the negotiating table unless their demand to suspend the legislative process is met. But that doesn’t mean he should simply allow that process to continue.
Things are heating up
The rhetoric against the legislation has heated up in recent days. Security officials – including the head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s Security Agency, and the police commissioner – have reportedly appealed to the prime minister to find ways to calm things down. International legal experts such as Irwin Cotler from Canada and Alan Dershowitz from the US have urged him to seek consensus. Even US Ambassador Tom Nides called on Netanyahu to “pump the brakes… slow down.”
Rational voices in the Likud have joined in the chorus of appeals. Yuli Edelstein, who chairs the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, tweeted: “Changes to the judicial system are paramount, and we must begin conversing with each other to reach them. Other than those on the extremes, everyone understands the importance of this matter and we must avoid sticking to our convictions. We must come together for the people of Israel.”
Knesset Finance Committee chair David Bitan added that there is always room for compromise: “There’s no doubt that a compromise is necessary and that is understood even by those who object to it, but everyone has to abandon their all-or-nothing approach.”
Herzog argued Tuesday that there still is time to resolve the standoff.
“We need to make every effort so that following this vote, it will be possible to continue negotiating, to reach an agreed outline that will take us out of this difficult period, into a period of agreed constitutional reform,” he said. “The dispute can be resolved. The majority of the people want a solution; the majority of the people want an agreed outline.”
A new poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that even among Likud voters, there is not a majority for the planned reforms. On the one hand, 40% of Likud supporters believe that the appointment process should change; on the other hand, 40% believe that the committee should continue to remain equally balanced between judges and politicians. A similar result came when the institute polled Israelis who had voted for the National Religious Party, whose representative, Simcha Rothman, has been spearheading the legislation together with Levin.
The prime minister now faces a crucial choice: Either he can continue to steamroll the legal reform legislation through the Knesset or he can heed the advice of those urging him to slow things down and order his party to launch negotiations with the opposition. If he’s serious about his readiness for compromise, then he must make a genuine attempt – and the sooner, the better.
Politics is the art of compromise, and now is the time for Netanyahu to demonstrate that he is still a master when it comes to finding a just solution for an explosive political problem that is dividing the nation.