Courtesy of JNS. Photo credit: Erik Marmor/Flash90
Israelis protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on March 25, 2023

(JNS) The negotiations between Israeli political parties in search of a compromise judicial reform framework continued on Thursday amid widespread pessimism that a consensus will be reached and skepticism as to President Isaac Herzog’s neutrality as the principal mediator.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), in a statement on Wednesday, said he would make a “supreme effort” to pass the judicial reform in the next Knesset session.

“We’ll organize demonstrations across Israel to show what the majority of the public wants,” the minister wrote in a message to supporters.

A representative of the President’s Office told JNS that the negotiations are advancing “in a productive manner.”

“The president is committed to advancing the negotiations until a broad consensus is reached. This effort is being done in cooperation with all relevant parties, and hopefully will allow for a lowering of tension,” the representative said.

Yehuda Vald, the director general of the Religious Zionism Party, questioned the negotiations’ efficacy and Herzog’s role as chief mediator. “The president is unfortunately not objective. We need to talk and reach a balanced outline. But without him; he is part of the problem, not the solution,” he said.

In the negotiation session on Tuesday, the Yesh Atid team advanced a proposal for a written constitution as a possible framework to resolve the dispute. “We told the president that in the seventy fifth year of the State of Israel, we can make a real change—not just cosmetic fixes, but a widely agreed-upon constitution based on the values of the [1948] Declaration of Independence,” the delegation said in a statement.

Avraham Shalev, a legal scholar at the Kohelet Policy Forum, told JNS this effort was unlikely to succeed before judicial reform. “It is very unlikely that a constitution will pass so long as the [Supreme] Court serves as the ultimate repository of power. Once that is finished there is more chance of a constitution being passed on a consensual basis,” he explained.

“It is very important to come to an agreement,” Shalev continued. “The basic idea behind the reform is to fix the democratic deficit that exists in Israel right now. There is a fundamental problem when the people who have power and make decisions, such as judges and [government] legal advisers, do not have public accountability. That is the principle that needs to guide the negotiations.”

Shalev added that the negotiations will likely have to include guarantees limiting government authority or protecting individual rights. “The strong concern on the other side is government power and protection of civil rights,” he said. “I don’t think that the original reform proposal harmed those things but I understand those fears and the concerns of the other side will have to be met.”

The public has also largely taken a pessimistic view of the negotiations. Only forty one percent of Israelis believe that the talks will yield a compromise that will satisfy both sides, while fifty two percent say there is no real chance for compromise, according to a survey conducted by Panel Politics.

Left-wing respondents were the most pessimistic group, with seventy four percent saying the talks have no chance of leading to compromise. Among religious respondents, sixty one percent agreed that the talks would fail. Furthermore, forty one percent of respondents said they were unwilling to compromise on any area of their position.

The survey was conducted among five hundred and sixteen respondents who are a representative sample of the adult population in the State of Israel, Jews and Arabs. The data collection was done through the Panels web panel, and the maximum sampling error was four point three percent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the government’s judicial reform proposals after unprecedented protests against it brought much of Israel to a standstill on Monday. Since Tuesday negotiation teams from most major parties have been convening under the mediation of Herzog.

Netanyahu, in a statement on Wednesday, reiterated his commitment to the talks.

“Democracy means the will of the people as expressed by a majority and it also means protection of civil rights and individual rights. It’s the balance between the two,” the prime minister said. “I think that balance can be achieved. And that’s why I’ve promoted a pause that now enables both the opposition and the coalition to sit down and try to achieve a broad national consensus to achieve both goals.”

MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism), chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, also expressed doubts about the negotiation process.

“I didn’t think there was a need to stop the legislation to get people together for negotiations, but we accepted that Netanyahu made his choice to go that way,” he said. “It wasn’t anything in the details that prevented an agreement from being reached. You’ll see that a major part of the protesters and the opposition don’t want to reach a compromise, to sit and talk. They don’t care about judicial reform.”

Members of the opposition have also expressed doubts about the talks.

After Speaker Amir Ohana (Likud) sent the first section of the judicial reform to the Knesset plenum, which would allow the coalition to quickly pass the bill into law if they so choose, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman withdrew his support for negotiations.

Liberman also called on fellow opposition party leaders Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz of the National Unity to withdraw from the talks, saying, “Negotiations cannot be conducted when Netanyahu and his partners continue in the legislative process.”

Following Levin’s statements on Wednesday, Liberman called the negotiations a “sham.”