Israeli government and opposition parties hold second day of talks on judicial reforms

The National  /  March 29, 2023

Decisions will not be influenced by pressure from abroad, says Prime Minister.

Israel’s far-right government and the two main centrist opposition parties held a second day of talks on Wednesday on controversial judicial reforms that led to mass protests and a general strike in the country’s most severe domestic crisis in years.

The talks come after the first day of meetings “took place in a positive spirit”, President Isaac Herzog said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed confidence that a national consensus could be reached over his proposals.

He rejected calls from US President Joe Biden to “walk away” from the reforms after Mr Biden on Tuesday urged him to abandon proposals that would give the Israeli government greater control over appointments to the country’s Supreme Court.

Mr Netanyahu wrote on Twitter that he did not make decisions based on pressure from abroad.

“I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his long-standing commitment to Israel,” he tweeted.

“The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional disagreements between us.

“My administration is committed to strengthening democracy by restoring the proper balance between the three branches of government, which we are striving to achieve via a broad consensus.

“Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

Mr Netanyahu delayed the proposals on Monday after protesters took to the streets across Israel.

Israeli police disperse demonstrators blocking a road in Tel Aviv during a protest against plans by the government to overhaul the judicial system. AP

The White House initially said in response that Mr Netanyahu should seek a compromise on the issue.

“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned,” Mr Biden said on Tuesday.

“I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. Hopefully the Prime Minister [Netanyahu] will act in a way that he’s going to try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said Israel was “not another star on the American flag. We are a democracy and I expect the US President to understand that.”

Skepticism remained high over the negotiations on the judicial overhaul, which would curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and give politicians greater powers over the selection of judges.

Visa-free entry to US

Amid the exchange of words with Mr Biden, Mr Netanyahu said that Israel expected to enter the list of visa-exempt countries for the US in September.

“Today we brought important news to the citizens of Israel: as we promised, the legislative requirements for obtaining a visa exemption for the USA have been successfully completed,” he tweeted on Wednesday.

The US embassy in Jerusalem had no immediate comment on Israel’s place in the US Visa Waiver Program, Reuters reported.

The embassy said on January 30 that Israel met its requirement of being below the 3 per cent non-immigrant refusal rate — a reference to the number of applicants turned away due to faulty paperwork.

Before Mr Netanyahu’s announcement, his National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi tweeted that parliament was due to ratify the last of four bills “that will advance us towards getting the US visa waiver for the citizens of Israel”.

That appeared to refer to the Knesset’s approval in final readings on Wednesday of a law setting up a new national immigration database linked with airline passenger manifests.

Washington had previously called for greater access to databases in Israel about its travelers to the US.

It was not immediately clear whether Israel had met another US condition for the visa waiver — free passage for Palestinian-Americans at its airports and into the occupied West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel would in the coming months address outstanding requirements.