Israeli parties hold talks on justice reforms


Israel’s far-right government and opposition parties on Tuesday called off a “positive” first meeting on controversial judicial reforms that sparked a general strike and mass protests, in the country’s most severe domestic crisis in recent years.

The negotiations on the judicial overhaul that would limit the authority of the Supreme Court and give politicians additional powers regarding the selection of judges were still highly dubious.

“After about an hour and a half, the meeting, which was held in a positive spirit, came to an end,” the office of President Isaac Herzog said late Tuesday.

“Tomorrow, President Isaac Herzog will continue the series of meetings,” he said.

His office earlier described talks between working teams representing the ruling coalition, Yesh Atid and the National Unity Party — two central parties — as a “first dialogue meeting”.

“We thank the president for opening his house to the negotiation process for the benefit of the citizens of Israel,” tweeted Yesh Atid.

After three months of escalating tensions that have divided the nation and raised concerns among the United States and other allies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bowed to pressure against a national walkout on Monday.

The strike hit airports, hospitals and more, and thousands of reform opponents gathered outside the parliament in Jerusalem.

“Out of a will to prevent a rupture among our people, I have decided to pause the second and third reading of the bill” to allow time for dialogue, the prime minister said in a broadcast.

The decision to stop the legislative process was a dramatic U-turn for the capital, which announced a day earlier that it was sacking its defense minister who demanded the same step.

The move was greeted with skepticism in Israel, with the president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank saying it does not amount to a peace deal.

“Rather, it’s a truce maybe in terms of regrouping, reorganizing, refocusing and then charging — potentially — charging fees ahead,” Yohanan Plesner told journalists.

– ‘Rout or Bluff’ –

The leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, reacted fiercely, saying on Monday that he wanted to be sure that “there is no ulcer or bluff”.

A joint statement on Tuesday from Lapid’s party and Benny Gantz, a former defense minister, said such talks will be stopped immediately “if the law is put on the Knesset (parliament) agenda.”

The opposition had previously refused to negotiate the reforms – which would give politicians more power over the judiciary – until the legislative process was halted.

“The goal is to reach an agreement,” Netanyahu said in a statement on Tuesday.

Activists vowed to continue their rallies, which have continued regularly for weeks, sometimes drawing thousands of protesters.

“We will not stop the protest until the judicial coup is stopped completely,” said the Umbrella Movement of the demonstrators.

– ‘No turning back’ –

The crisis has exposed deep rifts within Netanyahu’s new coalition, an alliance of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, in a tweet on Monday, declared that “there will be no turning back” on the judicial overhaul.

His far-right cabinet member, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, pushed his supporters to rally in favor of the reforms.

Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party indicated on Monday that the decision to delay the legislation involved an agreement to expand the minister’s portfolio after he threatened to quit if the reform was suspended.

Writing in the left-wing daily Haaretz, political correspondent Yossi Verter said that “the truce was a victory for the protesters, but it is Itamar Ben-Gvir who really bent and trampled Netanyahu”.

The relationship has hit the coalition’s standing among the Israeli public, just three months after it took office.

Netanyahu’s Likud party has sunk seven points, according to an Israeli Channel 12 poll that predicted the government would lose its majority in the 120-seat parliament if elections were held.

It is not known what happened to the defense minister who was dismissed, Yoav Gallant, on Tuesday and there is speculation in the Israeli media that he may be reinstated.

Gallant, who warned the crisis threatens national security, welcomed “the decision to stop the legislative process to hold a dialogue,” his staff said.

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