Growing calls in Likud to resume overhaul push; Levin: ‘I’m more determined than ever’

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With negotiations over the government’s judicial shakeup halted by the opposition and growing coalition voices calling to swiftly resume the frozen legislative push, Justice Minister Yariv Levin said Friday he was “more determined than ever to do everything in order to pass the reform that is necessary to repair the justice system.”

On his Telegram channel, Levin thanked his supporters “for your important backing of my efforts toward a just justice system.”

National Unity’s Chili Tropper, who took part in negotiations at the President’s Residence, responded: “It would be better to channel that determination toward uniting our people and strengthening the nation’s security and economy. What Israel needs right now is broad agreement and a bit of quiet, and not a unilateral revolution.”

Opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz declared they were freezing their participation in negotiations for consensual judicial reform this week — after the prime minister attempted, and failed, to put off a crucial vote to elect lawmakers to the country’s Judicial Selection Committee.

The pair have said they will not agree to continue negotiations so long as the Judicial Selection Committee cannot convene — which cannot happen until parliament elects another lawmaker representative to the panel.

Friday saw contradictory messaging from the prime minister’s camp, as allies speaking to media insisted he was both committed to resuming negotiations under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog and eager to proceed with unilateral legislation.

The incongruity was apparent on the Channel 12 nightly broadcast. The network at one point cited sources close to Netanyahu as saying he was not keen on taking the unilateral route and was making overtures to the opposition to see if Lapid and Gantz can be persuaded to moderate their position. Minutes later the same network cited a different ally of the premier as saying it was clear Gantz and Lapid had been dishonest all along, “and since it’s clear there’s nobody to talk to, we are continuing with responsible, balanced legislation to fix the judicial system.”

Likud officials have indicated the coalition could move forward with less divisive elements of the plan, such as limiting judicial review of government decisions for their “reasonableness,” and letting the government choose its own legal representatives rather than having to rely upon the Attorney General’s Office to advocate on its behalf.

Doing so would likely lead the opposition to quit the talks permanently, and could reignite mass protests around the country.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid (C), National Unity party head Benny Gantz (R) and Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar hold a joint press conference at the Knesset on June 14, 2023, after the latter’s appointment to the Judicial Selections Committee. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But some in Likud are losing patience over the languishing overhaul effort. On Friday a close Netanyahu ally, Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar, said it was time the coalition moved ahead with at least some parts of the legislation.

Speaking to Channel 12, Zohar said he believed that “Netanyahu desires — and understands that it is possible — to start advancing part of the reform [unilaterally]. Not everything at once, this very moment. Not in a blitz. One thing at a time. We have a long term. Issues under broad consensus can be passed immediately. Issues that are more controversial — we should continue to try to talk.”

Culture and Sport Miki Zohar at the ministry offices in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zohar warned that if there is a feeling within the coalition that the overhaul is being sidelined, “it won’t end with the resignation of Yariv Levin. There will be mass resignations from the cabinet.”

“Anyone who thinks this term can pass without amendments to the justice system is mistaken.”

The premier’s efforts to put off this week’s vote for the Judicial Selection Committee amid pressure from allies and coalition chaos actually led to the opposition’s candidate Karine Elharrar being elected, with anonymous support from several coalition MKs. The coalition, to its embarrassment, was left without a representative, though it is likely to rally behind a candidate in the coming weeks.

On Thursday, Lapid claimed that a new, cross-camp alliance had been created with Wednesday’s selection of the opposition lawmaker to serve on the committee. He argued that the coalition MKs who voted for Elharar were committed to “safeguarding Israeli democracy” and opposed to the government’s proposed overhaul.

Speaking at a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, Lapid hailed the several coalition members who bucked coalition discipline in the secret-ballot vote.

The Yesh Atid party chief said the unnamed rebellious coalition members had not been promised anything in exchange for their vote, adding that some of them had even pledged to openly vote in the future against parts of the overhaul that they deem harmful to the country.

Elharrar was elected 58-56, meaning at least four coalition members broke ranks to vote for her. The only other name on the ballot, Likud’s Tally Gotliv, was defeated soundly after she threw the coalition into a tailspin by refusing to pull her maverick candidacy.

The opposition ran an organized campaign to recruit Likud MKs to push Elharrar’s candidacy over the line. Although the ballots were secret, MKs David Bitan and Yuli Edelstein, as well as Yoav Gallant and fellow minister Gila Gamliel, are among the top names thought to have tipped the scales in Elharrar’s favor.

A second, separate election will be conducted within 30 days to choose the second lawmaker on the committee, likely Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kroizer of the coalition.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, left, and party MK Karine Elharrar during a joint press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The results were an embarrassment for the prime minister, demonstrating his apparent lack of control over his own lawmakers.

Judicial appointments are a core tenet of the coalition’s plan to shake up the judiciary, and a core sticking point in negotiations held at the President’s Residence. Justice Minister Levin recently called the current panel makeup “invalid” and “unworthy” of a democracy, as he seeks to assert political control over judge picks.

Opposition lawmakers and an ongoing protest movement have said increasing political influence over judges would end judicial independence and cause grievous harm to democracy.

“What we saw yesterday in the Knesset vote was the beginning of a new Israeli alliance,” said Lapid Thursday morning. “From the chaos and mayhem and lies, an alliance has been created that no longer deals with right, left and center — but rather with an attempt to safeguard the State of Israel.

“We will keep working with them to ensure the well-being of Israeli democracy,” Lapid said. “Some of them are telling us: ‘Even in an open vote, we won’t cooperate with anything that damages the State of Israel. We weren’t elected to the Knesset to serve the extremists.’”

“This alliance is the future of the country. A patriotic, liberal, decent, incorrupt majority that acts to boost security, to lower the cost of living, to create a constitution, and most of all — one that is determined to ensure that this nation won’t be torn apart,” he said.

Senior Likud members have expressed opposition to the judicial overhaul in recent days, saying the effort hurt public support for the party and pushed other significant items off the agenda, the Haaretz daily reported Wednesday evening.

“More and more ministers and MKs in the coalition are signaling to Netanyahu to back down from the reforms and distance himself from Yariv Levin,” a coalition lawmaker told Haaretz.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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