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No major breakthrough in judicial reform talks as Knesset prepares return to session

There has still been no major breakthrough in reaching a compromise on a proposed overhaul that has sparked mass protests across the country

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (not pictured) speak to the media following talks at the Chancellery on March 16, 2023, in Berlin, Germany.

With less than a week to go before Israel’s Knesset returns for its summer session and the soft deadline set for representatives of the coalition and opposition to reach a compromise on the government’s plans to overhaul the country’s justice system, those involved in the meetings and outside observers are expressing little optimism.

Key partners in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have in recent months pushed for a rapid reform of the judiciary that would include far-reaching changes to the committee that selects judges and legislation to reduce the power of the Supreme Court, which currently serves as the only body providing oversight on legislation passed by the government.

The previous session of the Knesset saw both Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Member Simcha Rothman, chair of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, attempt to cement the reforms into law, but their actions sparked widespread opposition, including weekly mass public protests drawing hundreds of thousands of Israelis and threats of a national strike last month. In a televised statement at the end of March, Netanyahu agreed to temporarily freeze the controversial plan in an effort to, he explained, “give a real opportunity for real dialogue.”

Even as public protests have continued, representatives of the government have been meeting with opposition leaders – under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog – in order to devise a new process or plan that will restore calm.

“It’s time for frank, serious and responsible discussion that will lead urgently to calming spirits and lowering the flames,” Herzog commented at the time. He said the talks would be “focused and rigorous” and cover all core issues.

Speaking at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly on Sunday night, Herzog said that another round of talks between coalition and opposition members on the judicial reform had taken place that day. 

“These are sincere, openhearted conversations and I sincerely hope, and I am working toward that direction, that we will even come out with a constitutional moment in the future,” he said in his speech. “I do not live in illusions; it is difficult, it is complicated, it is painful, we have witnessed some of it in recent days, but it is definitely possible and you have to believe in it.”

Representing the government in the talks are Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer; Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs; professor Talia Einhorn of Ariel University; and Aviad Bakshi, head of the legal department at the Kohelet Policy Forum, the Jerusalem-based think tank said to be the architect behind the judicial changes being proposed.

On the opposition side, Yesh Atid is being represented by Knesset Members Orna Barbivai and Karine Elharrar; senior advisor to party leader Yair Lapid, Na’ama Schultz, and attorney Oded Gazit. MKs Gideon Sa’ar, Yehiel Tropper and Orit Farkash-Hacohen, as well as attorney Ronan Aviani, are in the talks on behalf of Benny Gantz’s National Unity party.

“It will be difficult to reach a real compromise,” Guy Lurie, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute who has been following events closely but is not involved in the discussions, told Jewish Insider. “There is still a very, very wide gap to bridge before we can talk about a compromise.”

On the prospects of reaching a broad consensus that will make both sides satisfied, Lurie added that the coalition currently seems less “tilted” in that direction. 

“If they keep on with the original intent, then the gaps are very, very wide between the proposals as they were presented and the current position of the opposition,” he said. “And the demonstrators on the street, who are even more extreme in their rejection of the coalition’s proposals.”

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