Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did the right thing on Monday evening by suspending the judicial overhaul legislation for at least a month to enable negotiations toward a compromise formula.
Granted, Netanyahu should have done this two months ago when he saw that Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s sweeping proposals were tearing the nation apart. But, as National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz said after Netanyahu froze the legislation, “better late than never.”
However, suspending the legislation alone is not enough, although even that significantly and palpably lightened the country’s mood.
Sincere and genuine efforts are now needed by both the coalition and opposition to reach a compromise to ensure the total independence of the judiciary, while recouping for the Knesset and the government some of the policy-implementing powers they have lost over the years.
And once that is ironed out, the sides should start working on a long-overdue Constitution and Bill of Rights to finally regulate life in this country – spelling out who has what authority, as well as defining and anchoring into law the rights and duties of each citizen. If the current crisis gives birth to this constitutional moment, then the trauma of the last three months will not have been in vain.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – first things first. And the first thing is for the sides to agree on judicial reform. That in itself is no small task, and for it to happen, both sides must demonstrate good faith.
Unfortunately, things did not get off to a very auspicious beginning.
Although both Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Gantz’s National Unity parties immediately set up teams to negotiate with the Likud under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, the coalition submitted for a second and third reading the contentious judicial appointments bill that passed the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday. This does not mean that the bill will come before the Knesset plenum, something that Netanyahu pledged would not occur during the current Knesset session, but it means that the coalition could bring the bill for a vote at a moment’s notice.
Though Knesset officials described this as merely a “technical” matter, it is a counterproductive move that does not build trust at a time when trust is both desperately needed and sorely lacking.
Coalition and the government are both wary of each other
The opposition is wary that Netanyahu’s freeze of the overhaul plan is just a tactical ploy to take the wind out of the sails of the demonstrations; the coalition is suspicious that the opposition is not as interested in judicial reform, as it is in sowing chaos so that it can bring down the government.
Netanyahu will need to prove that this is not just another of his notorious “shticks and tricks,” but rather, that he is genuinely interested in reaching agreement with the opposition over judicial reform. To do that, he needs to come up with confidence-building measures to offer the opposition.
But the opposition MKs must also offer an olive branch of their own.
Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the legislation, something he refused to do just two months ago, is an undeniable victory for the massive protest movement. Our hope, however, is that the opposition and leaders of the protest movement do not become so intoxicated by this victory as to lose sight of the initial aim: preventing the government from ramrodding through fundamental changes as to how this country is governed.
One of the critical factors in the ultimate success of the protests was the threat of reservists in the air force and other elite units in the IDF not to show up for volunteer reserve duty or training. A representative of the pilots announced following Netanyahu’s freeze of the legislation that they will now return to their regular training schedule: this is a welcome development. Gantz and Lapid would do well to call for a pause of the protests to lower the national temperature and give the talks a chance to succeed.
With Netanyahu’s announcement, the nation on Monday stepped back from the brink. A less highly charged atmosphere would help to ensure that the country does not approach that brink again any time soon.