Rothman says Lapid's fight against plan is 'BDS campaign'

400 ex-security chiefs urge Herzog not to sign laws that negate Israel’s core values

Former heads of police, Shin Bet, Mossad warn legal shakeup ‘will cause damage for generations’; constitution scholar says president’s power symbolic, refusal wouldn’t carry weight

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

President Isaac Herzog delivers a message to the nation from his office in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog delivers a message to the nation from his office in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

More than 400 ex-senior security officials, including former heads of the police, Shin Bet and Mossad, signed a public letter Thursday urging President Isaac Herzog not to agree to any laws that contradict Israel’s core democratic values as he works to mediate a compromise version of the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

They became the latest officials to decry the sweeping reform, which would significantly curb the High Court of Justice’s power to exercise judicial review, give the government an automatic majority on the Judicial Selection Committee, allow lawmakers to overrule court rulings with a bare majority and allow government ministers to appoint their own legal advisers.

“As you noted in your speech, the hasty legislative steps constitute a judicial revolution that will cause damage for generations to come,” said the letter by members of the Commanders for Israel’s Security group, referring to the president’s Sunday address in which he laid out a compromise proposal that has not yet brought the sides to negotiations.

Signatories include former Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, former Mossad directors Tamir Pardo and Danny Yatom, ex-police commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki and former national security adviser Uzi Arad.

“We, who led fighters to Israel’s wars and educated them on its values, defended the country in the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena, are calling with great respect for preventing a critical blow to these values,” they wrote. “In cases where the rule of law and judicial independence are harmed, the first to get harmed are IDF soldiers and security forces, and the physical and legal defense of them.”

Addressing Herzog, the security officials said: “Consider carefully before you sign laws that contradict the country’s Jewish-national and democratic-progressive character as laid out in the Declaration of Independence — for this purpose you have been given the authority to sign laws as a condition for them taking effect.”

Head of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman attends the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In Israel, the president holds a largely symbolic role, and Herzog is trying to act as a national unifier at a time of polarization.

The president also has the technical job of formally signing laws before they enter into effect. No president has ever refused to sign a law approved by the Knesset, and a constitutional scholar told The Times of Israel on Thursday that such a refusal would likely not matter.

“The president’s signature is symbolic, and it is not considered as if the president has any discretion in the matter,” said Dr. Guy Lurie of the Israel Democracy Institute. “While the issue is hypothetical, it has formerly been speculated by jurists that in such a case the court may rule that the law is in force without the president’s signature.”

Additionally, some 550 former naval commandos from the IDF’s elite Shayetet 13 unit, including several of its ex-commanders, urged Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Wednesday to oppose the legal shakeup.

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with his pick for defense minister Yoav Gallant on December 22, 2022 (Likud)

The group sent a public letter to Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and a retired general who came up in the military through Shayetet 13 and headed the unit in the 1990s. They noted that many of them had served alongside him and said they had put their lives on the line “to defend the State of Israel and the Declaration of Independence.”

“We, who belong to all parts of the nation and have many and varied political views… call on you, in this time of emergency for the State of Israel, to do everything in your power to stop the legislation weakening the judiciary, to safeguard Israeli democracy, and to act for dialogue between all parts of the State of Israel,” they write. “Just as we all learned in Shayetet 13.”

Since Herzog made his plea for the coalition and opposition to enter into talks on a widely agreed legal reform, both sides have indicated a willingness to negotiate, but the remaining sticking point is whether the legislative process of the overhaul will continue during these talks.

In his speech, Herzog said the process — currently being blitzed through the Knesset with minimal delays — should be paused to give compromise a chance. Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and National Unity party leader Benny Gantz have insisted on the complete halt of legislative efforts, with Lapid seeking a 60-day freeze, while the architects of the coalition’s plan are urging negotiation but refusing to postpone the process for “even a minute.”

From L-R President Isaac Herzog, MK Simcha Rothman, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, National Unity leader Benny Gantz (Flash 90)

On Thursday morning, MK Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee who has been leading the government’s legislative blitz, tweeted that all week, he and Justice Minister Yariv Levin have been urging Lapid and Gantz to come to the president, but they have refused to do so even though they had removed some private bills on the matter from the Knesset plenum’s agenda Wednesday at Herzog’s request.

“Let me guess that today, too, the opposition to the country will continue to ignore the president’s requests for dialogue,” Rothman said.

“Lapid will continue his BDS campaign against Israel,” he said, claiming that opposition warnings that the legal overhaul will deter Israeli firms and foreign businesses from investing their cash in Israel are tantamount to calling on investors to boycott Israel, as the anti-Israel BDS movement does.

“Bottom line: Lapid, [Ehud] Olmert and [Ehud] Barak are continuing along the same line. Failing former prime ministers who lost to Netanyahu and are inciting civil war,” Rothman said.

Gantz issued a plea Thursday for “everyone to stop, go into a room together until white smoke comes out, until we reach agreements that will prevent our nation from tearing apart.

“Legislation and blame games must simply stop,” Gantz said. “Our nation needs and wants this and we owe it to them. This is our responsibility as leaders.”

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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