Netanyahu softens judicial overhaul after Biden call

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[March 20, 2023]  By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a softening on Monday of his hard-right government's judicial overhaul plan, an apparent bid to calm more than two months of nationwide protests and misgivings voiced by Western allies.

The announcement followed a call on Netanyahu by U.S. President Joe Biden to seek compromise and consensus in the constitutional crisis. But it was scorned by the centre-left political opposition and stepped-up demonstrations loomed.

The already-shaken shekel slipped another 0.4% versus the dollar. Tel Aviv shares were 0.3% lower. Some lawmakers in Netanyahu's coalition cast the revisions as "capitulation".

Wielding a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu had looked set to ratify the package of reforms by the Knesset's recess on April 2. But most will now be shelved until it reconvenes on April 30, he and partners in the religious-nationalist coalition said.

The legislation still slated for ratification in the next two weeks would shake up Israel's method of selecting judges - an issue at the heart of the controversy, with critics accusing Netanyahu of trying to curb independence of the courts.

The veteran premier - under trial on corruption charges he denies - insists he seeks balance among branches of government.

In Sunday's phone conversation, Biden said he would support a compromise on the judicial overhaul and encouraged checks and balances and building broad agreement, according to the White House.

Netanyahu reassured the U.S. president of the health of Israeli democracy, according to the prime minister's office.

Monday's coalition statement used more circumspect language than in the original bill introduced on Jan. 4, but said it would continue to check the power of judges on the selection panel to use what it deemed their "veto" over nominations to the bench.

The statement further noted amendments made to the bill in a Knesset review session on Sunday, whereby the selection panel would be expanded from 9 to 11 members as originally planned but with a make-up that grants the government less potential clout.

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An aerial view shows people protesting as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalist coalition government presses on with its contentious judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 18, 2023. REUTERS/Oren Alon

Previously, the bill envisaged the panel including three cabinet ministers, two coalition lawmakers and two public figures chosen by the government - spelling a 7-4 vote majority.

It its amended form, the bill envisages the panel being made up of three cabinet ministers, three coalition lawmakers, three judges and two opposition lawmakers. That could make for a slimmer and less assured 6-5 majority for the government.

The amended bill further stipulates that no more than two Supreme Court justices can be appointed by regular panel voting in a given Knesset session. Any appointments beyond that would have to be approved by a majority vote including at least one judge and one opposition lawmaker among selection panel members.

The coalition statement said it was "extending a hand to anyone who genuinely cares about national unity and the desire to reach an agreed accord". Opposition leader Yair Lapid rejected the overture, saying nothing substantive had changed.

"This most recent coalition proposal is a blueprint for a hostile takeover of the justice system," Lapid said on Twitter.

The Black Flags activist group said demonstrations that have already shaked the country and reached into its normally apolitical military would be intensified. It accused Netanyahu of attempting "to put the protest to sleep with pretty words".

Netanyahu also faced coalition censure.

"I awoke to a morning of capitulation," Tally Gotliv, a lawmaker in his conservative Likud party, told Ynet Radio. "We surrendered on the reforms."

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Nick Macfie and Angus MacSwan)

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