A day after widespread civil unrest forced prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel to delay a plan to weaken the judiciary, his government and the opposition in parliament on Tuesday began the first direct negotiations to reach a compromise since the plan was introduced nearly three months ago.
Following a tumultuous week that saw growing dissent in the military, the firing of the defence minister, mass protests and work stoppages, emotions subsided on Tuesday. The country’s leading union called off a national strike, hospitals resumed full services after reducing them in protest, and the main airport allowed outbound flights again after putting them on hold a day earlier.
Four government negotiators and eight opposition counterparts held a meeting hosted by Israel’s figurehead president, Yitzhak Herzog, at his residence in Jerusalem. Participants said the meeting was mainly procedural – a preliminary effort to set ground rules for future discussions – but it was the first face-to-face negotiation between lawmakers from the two sides on a dispute that has divided Israeli society more bitterly than any in recent memory.
Mr Netanyahu’s government wants to give itself more power over the selection of supreme court judges, limit the court’s ability to block government action, and allow parliament to overrule the court’s decisions. Mr Netanyahu and his allies say the measures would bolster democracy by freeing elected lawmakers from the meddling of unelected judges.
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But critics say it would undermine democracy by removing one of the few checks on government overreach – much as similar weakening of judicial independence has done in Hungary and Poland – and potentially lead to authoritarian rule and the imposition of religious rules on public life.
It was those critics who flooded Israel’s streets in recent days, partly shutting down the economy and forcing Netanyahu to freeze the plan for a month to allow for dialogue. After he put it on hold on Monday, some opponents were prepared to negotiate, even as others said the overhaul should be permanently withdrawn, not merely watered down.
“We have come with an open heart and in earnest,” Chili Tropper, a lawmaker who represented the opposition at the president’s residence, said in a video after the meeting. “We understand perfectly well what is at stake here: Israeli democracy and national unity.”
But suspicion and disappointment on both sides remained. Government critics feared that Mr Netanyahu’s Coalition of far-right and ultraconservative religious parties would revive the overhaul after a superficial delay. Some held small demonstrations on Tuesday, including a crowd of protesters outside the presidency who wanted the overhaul to be scrapped altogether.
Among government supporters, there was frustration that their views and goals had been thwarted, at least temporarily, despite right-wing parties’ winning a majority in an election last November.
The situation remained volatile enough that the Biden administration, which has been increasingly explicit about its unease at the judicial overhaul, appeared uncertain of how to respond to Mr Netanyahu’s reversal.
The US ambassador to Israel, Thomas R Nides, toured Israeli news media outlets and seemed to signal the Biden administration’s approval of Mr Netanyahu’s decision – which he said was “something that we welcome and we appreciate” in an interview on Israeli television.
In a separate radio interview on Tuesday, he even appeared to suggest Mr Netanyahu would soon be welcomed at the White House, a visit he has long coveted but which US president Joe Biden has so far denied him, though he did not cite a specific plan or date.
“There’s no question that the prime minister will come and see president Biden,” Mr Nides said. “He obviously will be coming,” he said.
Hours later, a White House spokeswoman, Olivia Dalton, told reporters that there was “no plan for prime minister Netanyahu to visit Washington,” but said that it was likely “at some point”.
Later still, Mr Biden was much more definitive, when asked at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina whether Mr Netanyahu would be invited to the White House: “No. Not in the near term.”
And the US president was less than rosy in his assessment of events in Israel.
“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned,” he said. “And I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. I’ve sort of made that clear. Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”
In an unusual late-night statement, released shortly before 1am, Mr Netanyahu said he appreciated Mr Biden’s support for Israel and would try to enact the overhaul “by broad consensus,” but he said that his government did not act “based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends”.
Opposition lawmakers in Israel accused the government of playing a double game by delaying the legislation while also taking procedural measures in parliament that would make it swifter to vote the package into law in the future. But the Coalition said that was simply a technical move.
More generally among the opposition, however, there was a sense of relief.
“This morning, we are allowed to rejoice a little,” Nadav Eyal, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot, a big centrist newspaper, wrote on Tuesday morning. “Israeli democracy may die one day,” he said. “But it will not happen this week, nor this month, nor this spring.”
The negotiations at the presidency build on weeks of mediation in February and March between academics and government officials, in which participants said compromises had been found on every issue bar one: The government refused to give up on its goal of appointing a majority of members on the committee that appoints judges.
“The discussion that we begin now is not starting from zero,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, one of the research groups involved in the earlier mediation, said on Tuesday at a press briefing. “The politicians are not entering into a barren negotiating land but into something that is more mature,” he said.
Within the opposition, there were fears about Mr Netanyahu’s promise to Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right minister for national security, that he would consider creating a national guard under Mr Ben-Gvir’s control.
Critics warned that if Mr Netanyahu followed through on that proposal, made after Mr Ben-Gvir agreed to remain in the government despite the delay to the overhaul, it would effectively place a paramilitary body under the control of a man convicted of racist incitement and support for a terrorist group.
Moshe Karadi, a former police chief, told reporters that the new national guard would be “a private militia for his political needs”.
In a statement, Mr Ben-Gvir said that the body – which has yet to be created – would prevent rioting and “strengthen security and governance in the country”.
There was also uncertainty about the future of Yoav Gallant, the defence minister fired by Mr Netanyahu on Sunday night after Mr Gallant called for a halt to the overhaul.
Mr Gallant’s dismissal has not formally taken effect, and Israeli commentators speculated that Mr Netanyahu may yet allow him to keep his job.
Among government supporters, there were feelings of uncertainty, disappointment and resentment at Mr Netanyahu’s inability to push through the legislation.
“At school they told me that Israel is a democracy,” Evyatar Cohen, a commentator for Srugim, a right-wing news outlet, wrote. “They said that as soon as I reach the age of 18 I can go to the polls and influence the future of the country, its character and goals.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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