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Israel’s Judicial Crisis Enters New Phase After Move by Netanyahu

An effort to resolve a dispute over the future of Israel’s judiciary, an issue that has divided the country for months, suffered a major blow Wednesday after a dramatic showdown in Parliament over a committee that picks the nation’s judges.

Opposition leaders said they were withdrawing from negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, pausing talks, for at least a month, aimed at reaching a compromise over a contentious plan to overhaul the judicial system.

The announcement was prompted by a move by Mr. Netanyahu to disrupt a vote in Parliament that would choose members of the committee that selects new judges. That process is at the heart of the dispute over the judicial system, and the opposition had hoped it would remain untouched while the negotiations were ongoing.

The events underscored how the government’s plan remains a powder keg despite Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to suspend it in late March after months of protests, opposition from within the military and nationwide strikes.

It also demonstrated the delicate balancing act that Mr. Netanyahu faces as he tries to placate both his critics and members of his coalition government, while also moving forward with signature projects like forging formal relations with Saudi Arabia.

For over two months, Mr. Netanyahu’s representatives have been engaged in private negotiations with the opposition about a potential compromise, mediated by President Isaac Herzog — buying both sides time and cooling what had been an increasingly venal public discourse.

The prime minister’s decision to suspend the judicial overhaul two months ago reduced some of the tensions that had rived the country. The street unrest has dwindled, dissent in the military appears to have ended, and the mass protests held weekly in Tel Aviv have shrunk.

But on Wednesday, the thunder and the fury came roaring back. Attempting to placate hard-line allies who resent any attempt at compromise, Mr. Netanyahu tried to sabotage what is usually a routine vote to elect new members of a committee that chooses new judges. His move effectively puts off the composition of the committee for another month.

That move angered the opposition, which saw the effort as a backdoor effort to enact part of the judicial overhaul without social consensus. Lawmakers called for an end to the compromise negotiations and a return to mass protests during the week.

“No committee, no talks,” said Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition, in a joint news conference with Benny Gantz, another opposition leader.

“Netanyahu knew the consequences,” Mr. Lapid said. “They were made clear to him by the president and by us.” He added, referring to the location of the talks: “Without a judicial selection committee, we will not come to the president’s residence.”

In response, some coalition members threatened to proceed unilaterally with their original plan without seeking a compromise. Mr. Netanyahu himself stopped short of doing so, but accused Mr. Lapid and Mr. Gantz of acting in bad faith.

“Today it became finally clear that Gantz and Lapid looked for every way to blow up the talks,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video statement on Wednesday night. “Gantz and Lapid do not want a real negotiation.”

The immediate spark for Wednesday’s crisis was a long-scheduled vote in Parliament to choose new members of the judicial appointments committee.

At the start of each of its terms, Parliament normally elects two lawmakers to join the nine-person board that selects new judges, including Supreme Court justices. One of them is typically proposed by the government, the other by the opposition; lawmakers rubber-stamp the decision in a symbolic vote, and the remaining seven places are filled by ministers, senior judges and lawyers.

To avoid another crisis with the opposition, Mr. Netanyahu appeared set to continue that convention on Wednesday.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s control over his coalition is slipping, and some of his more extreme allies wanted to elect two government representatives instead of one.

To that end, at least seven coalition lawmakers unilaterally said they would compete for a place on the committee. That raised the likelihood that both vacant spots would be filled by coalition lawmakers, at the expense of the single opposition candidate.

Mr. Netanyahu eventually persuaded all but one of the coalition lawmakers to stand down, reducing the contest to one candidate apiece from the government and the opposition.

But having narrowed the field, Mr. Netanyahu then instructed his coalition not to vote for the remaining coalition candidate, in a concession to allies who wanted to stop the committee from being formed altogether. As a result, only the opposition candidate was elected. That left one space empty, and meant that a new election for a coalition representative will be held in a month’s time.

In the interim, the committee cannot meet, and as a result the opposition leadership said they would not participate in the president’s mediation efforts.

Mr. Netanyahu is attempting this balancing act because his coalition is divided about whether to compromise on the judicial plan.

Some coalition lawmakers, including Mr. Netanyahu, appear open to compromising on some if not all of their original plan. The initial proposal prompted reserve military officers to avoid reporting for duty, business leaders to scale back their investments, labor unions to shut down the country’s main airport, and Mr. Netanyahu’s own poll ratings to drop dramatically. By engaging in compromise talks, Mr. Netanyahu seemed to want to avoid such a fallout again.

People briefed on the negotiations say that the government and opposition representatives were close this week to an agreement about two minor parts of the proposed overhaul: reducing the influence of the government’s legal advisers — senior civil servants attached to each ministry, whose legal opinions currently limit the actions of their minister — and scrapping the Supreme Court’s ability to countermand certain government decisions on grounds of “reasonability,” a legal term long resented by the Israeli right.

For some coalition leaders, these changes might be palatable. Aryeh Deri, a key ultra-Orthodox political leader whom the Supreme Court recently barred from the cabinet on grounds of reasonability, might be able to return to government. But for others, they ignore the central parts of the overhaul — the “override” clause, which would allow Parliament to overrule the Supreme Court, and a reshaping of the judicial appointments committee, which would give the government appointees a majority.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel, and Hiba Yazbek from Jerusalem.

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