Defiant Netanyahu pushes reform

The Israeli leader faces not only intensifying public protests against his government’s planned judicial reform, but accusations from the Attorney General that he has broken the law.

By Erin Viner

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he is putting aside all other considerations to pass a central part of the package next week while doing “everything, everything, to calm the situation and end the rift in the nation, because we are brothers.”

He made the statements during an unexpected nationwide televised address last night following a day of mass protests across Israel, as the Knesset amended a law to limit circumstances under which a premier can be removed from office – in a move that would pave the path for greater involvement by Netanyahu in the controversial judicial revisions.

The nation has been gripped by weekly and increasingly raucous nationwide demonstrations when just days after taking office, the Netanyahu coalition introduced  a sweeping “reform of governance” to limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench.

Proponents say the plan would rein in Supreme Court overreach and restore balance between the branches of government.

The court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution, and that the government’s overhaul would weaken the courts, endanger civil liberties and harm the economy. The proposal has drawn fierce condemnation from Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials, military reservists and advocacy groups – further broadening already deep political divisions in Israeli society.

Israel’s right-wing 37th government, an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions, asserts it holds the mandate for changes, deemed necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges which he denies, has dismissed the protests as refusal by leftist adversaries to accept the results of the 1 November’s election which resulted in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. He has ardently defended the judicial overhaul.

In last night’s address, Netanyahu insisted his coalition does not want a “controlled” but “balanced court” that would represent Israelis and ““win the people’s confidence,” leading to “the strengthening of democracy.”

Referring to the passage of the amendment just hours before, Netanyahu said that, “unfortunately until today, my hands have been tied. We reached the absurdity that if I had entered this event, as my position requires, they threatened to compel me to take a leave of absence, which would nullify the results of the election and the will of millions of citizens.

Therefore, this evening, I announce to you, my friends, citizens of Israel, no more. I am entering the arena. I am laying aside any other consideration, for our people, and for our country, I will do everything in my power to find a solution.”

[See the full text of the Prime Minister’s speech below]

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara today responded in a letter addressed directly to the Prime Minister, in which she accused him of breaking the law by ignoring a conflict of interest over his ongoing trial for corruption and getting directly involved in his government’s judicial overhaul plan.

“Your statement last night and any action you take in violation of this matter is illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest,” she stressed, underscoring, “The legal situation is clear: you must refrain from any involvement in initiatives to change the judiciary, including the makeup of the committee for the appointment of judges, as such activity is a conflict of interest.”

Today’s written missive repeated Baharav-Miara‘s earlier warnings that Netanyahu over the same, and related, matters.

In a message distributed by the ruling Likud party, an unnamed source reportedly close to Netanyahu denied he had violated any laws or conflict of interest agreements in his statement, and said it had no repercussions on his trial. The source went on to assert that it is incumbent on the Premier to try and reach a wide consensus at a time of national crisis that carries implications for the country both domestically and abroad.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir accused the Attorney General, who had been appointed by the former center-right government, of acting as de facto head of the Opposition. “If Ms. Baharav-Miara wants to make decisions on behalf of elected officials, she is welcome to form a party and run for parliament,” he wrote on Twitter.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel watchdog group said it will file a motion for contempt of the court and demand that Netanyahu be subjected to sanctions as stipulated by law – which include heavy fines and imprisonment.

Netanyahu delayed an imminent departure for a state visit to the United Kingdom to make his address, which had been immediately preceded by talks with  Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Following that meeting, Jerusalem’s top defense official cancelled his own address that had been slated for yesterday, which local media reported would include a call for the reform plans to be halted over the potential impact of the overhaul on the armed forces, where growing numbers of reservists have declared they will not serve.

Speaking just after the Prime Minister’s address, National Unity Party Leader Benny Gantz voiced regret that Netanyahu “fails to rise to the occasion with a delay in the legislation, particularly now that in accordance with his own words it is clear that it is the right thing for the State of Israel.”

Gantz, who is part of the Opposition, went on to say that, “The ‘barrier of silence’ has nevertheless started to break today. Many Knesset members of the coalition – chief of whom is the Defense Minister – view the rapid pace of legislation as well as an historic error. This evening, it is clear beyond reason for doubt, that the overhaul will critically harm democracy and Israeli society. It will also directly damage the security of Israel, amounting to national irresponsibility of the highest degree.”

Opposition Leader and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid has vowed to take swift action if the reform is approved by the Knesset next week as expected/

“The moment the change to the Judicial Appointments Committee passes, we will appeal against it at the Supreme Court,” he pledged, explaining, “ The base for the appeal will be simple: If this law passes, Israel stops being a democratic state. We will not allow this to happen. The liberal camp is simply unwilling to live in a non-democratic state. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli patriots will continue to take to the streets, we will continue to fight here at the Knesset, we will not allow this to happen.”

The reform is also sparking rising concern abroad.

The protests followed the Israeli leader to London. As he shook hands with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the steps of 10 Downing Street earlier today, hundreds of nearby protestors waved Israeli flags and banged drums. Some of the demonstrators shouted “Netanyahu go to jail, you can’t speak for Israel,” others held signs reading: “You can’t enjoy a weekend in London when you’re bringing down a democracy!”

Broadcasts of film the start of the meeting between Sunak and Netanyahu but that appeared to have been cancelled.

“We’re here to protest against Netanyahu, to protest against his attacks on democracy,” said Amnon Cohn, who described himself as an Israeli living in London since 2005.

Israeli-born protester Liron Rosiner Reshef used Netanyahu’s nickname while saying, “We are more determined than Bibi is.” Rosiner, who has lived in London for 13 years and hopes to one day return to Israel with her husband and three children, added, “This is a war for human rights … This is a war for all Israelis to fight.”

British Jews and Israelis have taken part in several large demonstrations in London in recent weeks, gathering in Westminster for “Defend Israeli Democracy” events.

The scenes in the British capital mirrored those in Berlin earlier this month during a visit by Netanyahu. Hundreds protested at the Brandenburg Gate, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed his own dissent against the reforms to the Israeli leader.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen experienced a similar reaction, while standing alongside his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock at a Berlin news conference late last month.

“I will not deny that we abroad are concerned about some of the legislative plans in Israel,” said Minister Baerbock, while underlining that, “Among the values that unite us is the protection of constitutional principles such as the independence of the judiciary. That was always Israel’s hallmark.”

The issue also arose this past Sunday during Netanyahu’s conversation with US President Joe Biden on the security situation in Israel following a Palestinian terror attack against an Israeli-American couple.

A statement released from the Prime Minister’s Office said: “Regarding the judicial reform, Prime Minister Netanyahu told President Biden that Israel was, and will remain, a strong and vibrant democracy,” and that “Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked President Biden for his commitment to Israel’s security.”

In February, French President Emanuel Macron was one of the first of Israel’s Western allies to voice concern over the matter to Prime Minister Netanyahu during a summit in Paris.

Full text of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech:

“Citizens of Israel,

Several months ago, as soon as the results of the elections became known, I said: I intend to be the Prime Minister of all citizens of Israel. I meant it then and I also mean it today.

We have one country and we must do everything to defend it from external threats, and from irreparable internal rifts. We cannot allow any disagreement, as sharp as it may be, to endanger our common future. Not only must we reject violence and hooliganism, we must also reject and condemn incitement and provocation.

Opponents of the reform are not traitors; supporters of the reform are not fascists. The overwhelming majority of the citizens of Israel, from across the political spectrum, love our country and want to maintain our democracy.

But since there are those who have arrogated democracy to themselves, this evening I would like to say a few words about democracy. True, we have differences of opinion. Supporters of the reform think there is no true democracy here and what endangers democracy is an all-powerful Supreme Court that delves into everything and, in effect, runs the country. On the other hand, opponents of the reform think that what endangers democracy is the Knesset and the Government acting without brakes or restraints, which will infringe on individual rights.

A proper democratic regime must deal with both of these issues. It must ensure majority rule and it must also safeguard individual rights. In order to ensure this, and in order to prevent a rift in the nation, the judicial reform for democracy must meet both of these basic needs. In order to prevent a rift in the nation, each side must take seriously the claims and concerns of the other side – and I would like to do that now.

Supporters of the reform are indignant that the balance between the authorities in Israel has been violated over the past decades. The court has unjustifiably interfered in security considerations in the war on terrorism. Time and again it has imposed difficulties on government policy.

For example, it prevented removing illegal migrants from Israel and you know what this has done to the residents of south Tel Aviv and other parts of the country. It interfered in the gas outline and for years delayed the extraction of gas from the sea, at an economic cost of tens of billions of shekels, which affected every citizen of Israel. Without authority, the court invalidated laws, prevented appointments and interfered in many areas that it need not have discussed at all.

There is another claim, perhaps the most painful. Many among the people have complained that the Supreme Court carries on like a closed club regarding the appointment of judges, on the ‘a friend brings a friend’ system. Under the current system, judges have a veto on the appointment of judges and, in effect, they appoint themselves, which does not occur in any other democracy in the world.

More than a few people, who do not define themselves as supporters of the reform, actually agree that various changes must be made, including on this matter, to enact a substantive reform of the judicial system. But among them there are also those who are concerned that the proposed democratic reform will go too far, and that it will enable the government and the Knesset to take control of the court, to override every ruling, to legislate any law. They are concerned about a state run according to Jewish religious law, about an illiberal state, about legislation against the LGBTQ sector, the secular, women and minorities.

Then, in light of these concerns, I say this evening: I believe that it is possible to enact a reform that will answer both sides, a reform that will restore the proper balance between the authorities and, on the other hand, safeguard, and I say beyond that, not just safeguard but ensure the individual rights of every citizen in the country.

We have not come to run over and to trample. We have come to balance and correct. Therefore, we are determined to correct and responsibly advance the democratic reform that will restore the proper balance between the authorities. I remind you that so far we have discussed only one subject out of many that we have not yet discussed.

The best way to achieve the balanced reform, and prevent a rift in the nation, is by dialogue and achieving agreement that is as broad as possible.

Unfortunately, as of now the representatives of the opposition have refused to enter into this discussion. Almost three months have been wasted over this refusal. I hope that this will change in the coming days. I am working to find a solution. I am attentive to the concerns of the other side. Look, we have already made changes in the law regarding the judicial selection committee, in order to meet the concerns of the other side.

The law that will be submitted for Knesset approval next week is a law that does not take control of the court but balances and diversifies it. It opens the gates of the Supreme Court to outlooks, publics and sectors that until today have been excluded from it for decades.

We do not want a controlled court. We want a balanced court. A balanced court will be a court of the people and such a court will win the people’s confidence. This is not the end of democracy but the strengthening of democracy.

In all democracies, including in the US, it is the representatives of the people who select judges. There are hardly any exceptions to this, very few. Then the US is not a democracy? New Zealand is not a democracy? Canada is not a democracy? The noted jurist, Professor Alan Dershowitz from Harvard University, who actually opposes parts of the reform, said that if the reform would pass in its current format, before ‘the softening’, then Israel would not be a dictatorship, it would be like New Zealand, Canada and to a considerable degree, the US as well. This is not the end of democracy but the strengthening of democracy.

Now, I would like to answer a main concern that has been raised by the other side. I know that there is concern over a sweeping and unrestricted override clause that would lead to a small Knesset majority being able to invalidate any court decision. I want to tell you clearly – this will not happen.

On the contrary, we intend, and I intend, to anchor in law individual rights. We will ensure the basic rights of every Israeli citizen – Jews and non-Jews, secular and religious, women, the LGBTQ sector, everyone – without exception. All legislation will be bound by these principles. I am not saying this in the abstract; we intend to submit explicit legislation on this issue. I will personally see to it.

Unfortunately, until today, my hands have been tied. We reached the absurdity that if I had entered this event, as my position requires, they threatened to compel me to take a leave of absence, which would nullify the results of the election and the will of millions of citizens. This is an absurdity that cannot be in a proper democracy.

Therefore, this evening, I announce to you, my friends, citizens of Israel, no more. I am entering the arena. I am laying aside any other consideration, for our people, and for our country, I will do everything in my power to find a solution.

This evening, I met with several ministers, including the Defense Minister. I heard his concerns about the implications of the situation on our national security. I am taking everything into account. At the same time, I must also repeat that there is no place for refusal to serve. Refusal to serve endangers our national security and the personal security of every one of us; there is also no justification for refusing to serve.

I tell you, my friends, I will do everything, everything, to calm the situation and end the rift in the nation, because we are brothers.

With G-d’s help, together we will do it and together we will succeed.”