Israel has ‘positive’ meeting on judicial reforms amid international calls to scrap them

Soraya Ebrahimi

The National  /  March 29, 2023

Meeting was first step to end crisis that has revealed deep rifts in Benjamin Netanyahu’s fledgling coalition.

The Israeli government and opposition parties ended a “positive” first meeting on Tuesday evening over controversial judiciary reforms that sparked a general strike and mass protests, causing the country’s most severe domestic crisis in years.

Negotiations were surrounded in skepticism as ministers discussed the judicial overhaul that would curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and give politicians greater powers over the selection of judges.

“After about an hour and a half, the meeting, which took place in a positive spirit, came to an end,” President Isaac Herzog’s office said late on Tuesday.

“Tomorrow, President Isaac Herzog will continue the series of meetings.”

His office earlier described talks between working teams representing the ruling coalition, Yesh Atid and the National Unity Party — two centrist parties — as “a first-dialogue meeting”.

“We thank the President for opening his house to the negotiation process for the benefit of the citizens of Israel,” Yesh Atid tweeted.

After three months of increasing tension that split the nation and raised concerns among the US and other allies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bowed to pressure amid a nationwide strike on Monday.

It hit airports, hospitals and more, while tens of thousands of reform opponents rallied outside Parliament in Jerusalem.

“Out of a will to prevent a rupture among our people, I have decided to pause the second and third readings of the bill” to allow time for dialogue, Mr Netanyahu said in a broadcast.

The decision to halt the legislative process marked a dramatic U-turn for the premier, who just a day earlier announced he was sacking his Defence minister after he called for a pause.

The move was greeted with suspicion in Israel, with the president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank saying it did not amount to a peace deal.

“Rather, it’s a ceasefire perhaps for regrouping, reorganizing, reorienting and then potentially charging ahead,” Yohanan Plesner said.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid reacted warily, saying on Monday that he wanted to be sure “there is no ruse or bluff”.

A joint statement Tuesday from Mr Lapid’s party and that of Benny Gantz, a former Defence minister, said such talks would stop immediately “if the law is put on the Knesset’s [parliament’s] agenda”.

The opposition had previously refused to negotiate about the reforms until the legislative process was stopped.

“The goal is to reach an agreement,” Mr Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

US President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned Israel it “cannot continue” pressing for deeply controversial judicial reforms.

“Like many strong supporters of Israel I’m very concerned,” Mr Biden told reporters. “They cannot continue down this road, and I’ve sort of made that clear.

“Hopefully the Prime Minister will act in a way that he will try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”

He was not considering inviting the Israeli leader to the White House “in the near term”.

Mr Netanyahu said that although he appreciated Mr Biden’s commitment to Israel, the government “does not make decisions based on pressures from abroad”.

Activists vowed to continue their rallies, which have run for weeks, sometimes drawing tens of thousands of protesters.

“We will not stop the protest until the judicial coup is completely stopped,” the Umbrella Movement of demonstrators said.

The crisis has revealed deep rifts in Mr Netanyahu’s fledgling coalition, an alliance with far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, in a tweet Monday, asserted “there will be no turning back” on the judicial overhaul.

Fellow far-right cabinet member, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, had pressed his supporters to rally in favour of the reforms.

Mr Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party revealed on Monday that the decision to delay the legislation involved an agreement to expand the minister’s portfolio after he threatened to quit if the overhaul was put on hold.

Writing in the left-wing daily Haaretz, political correspondent Yossi Verter said the pause was “a victory for the protesters, but the one who really bent Netanyahu and trampled on him is Itamar Ben-Gvir”.

The affair has hit the coalition’s standing among the Israeli public, three months after it took office.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party has dipped seven points, according to a poll by Israel’s Channel 12, which predicted the government would lose its majority in the 120-seat parliament if elections were held.

The fate of sacked Defence minister Yoav Gallant was unknown on Tuesday, with speculation in Israeli media that he could be reinstated.

Mr Gallant, who had warned the crisis threatened national security, on Monday welcomed “the decision to stop the legislative process in order to conduct dialogue”, his team said.

Soraya Ebrahimi – homepage editor