Justice minister accused High Court of protecting rapists

After Levin’s speech against High Court, Herzog asks officials to ‘restrain remarks’

President says his office is engaged in ‘ceaseless effort’ to reach a broad consensus on judicial overhaul, but such a goal requires ‘everyone to to behave in moderation’

President Isaac Herzog attends a ceremony in Tel Aviv, March 13, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
President Isaac Herzog attends a ceremony in Tel Aviv, March 13, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

President Isaac Herzog on Sunday appeared to criticize Justice Minister Yariv Levin over his biting comments against the Supreme Court last week at a mass right-wing rally in Jerusalem.

Speaking at a Bible study event at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Herzog said that his office — which has been hosting ongoing negotiations on the judicial overhaul between the coalition and opposition — “is making a Sisyphean and ceaseless effort to promote broad dialogue and understanding.”

Such efforts, Herzog added, require “everyone to behave in moderation, to restrain our remarks and conduct, to act responsibly — in particular public officials.”

Herzog added that the ongoing polarization in Israel over the issue was dangerous and reiterated that “while it is possible to disagree about policies, decisions and worldviews,” such disputes must be handled with courtesy and respect.

The president’s comments were widely seen as directed at Levin — the chief architect of the government’s plans to radically overhaul the judiciary — after he said on Thursday that he would do “everything in my power” to see the overhaul through.

In a broad attack at the Supreme Court, Levin proclaimed that the state needs “a High Court that does not give rights to the families of terrorists, and does not permit fake memorial services together with terror supporters.” He said Israel needs a court that “punishes rapists and doesn’t seek ways to protect them; a court that protects IDF soldiers and not the terrorists’ neighbors.”

Justice Minister Yariv Levin speaks at a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Knesset on April 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

While the justice minister said he supported the ongoing talks at the President’s Residence, he accused the opposition of saying “no to every proposal.”

Netanyahu ordered a pause to the government’s legislative efforts in late March in order to allow for Herzog to lead negotiations aimed at reaching a broad consensus, but the Knesset’s new session on Sunday has led many in the opposition to fear that the coalition could soon pick up right where it left off.

A key overhaul bill that would put judicial appointments under political control has passed nearly all legislative stages and is ready to be passed within days, if the coalition so desires. However, analysts and commentators believe the coalition will not advance any of the legislation before passing the state budget, which the ruling bloc must do by May 29, or face automatic elections.

At the outset of the cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he fully backs the ongoing talks and believes that a deal can be reached.

“There is a fundamental debate between us regarding the legal reform, but we are making an effort to resolve this debate through dialogue” with the opposition, Netanyahu said. “With the goodwill of both parties, I am convinced that agreements can be reached — and I fully support this.”

Following Levin’s speech, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said on Friday that the justice minister’s remarks called into question the coalition’s commitment to the ongoing negotiations.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, April 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz slammed the justice minister and other coalition figures for “inciting and lying” during the Jerusalem demonstration, and said their comments “evoke difficult thoughts about the ability to reach agreements in the talks at the President’s Residence, agreements that are needed for the Israeli people at this time.”

Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid issued a statement denouncing “the speeches of incitement” by the justice minister and other coalition members, and National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar described Levin’s address “as one of the gravest speeches of incitement to date against the judicial system that he heads.”

After Thursday night’s mass pro-government demonstration, hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied across Israel on Saturday evening as part of ongoing demonstrations against the coalition’s contentious judicial overhaul.

Critics say the overhaul, which will shift much of the judiciary’s power into the government’s hands, will make Israel a democracy in name only, shielding leaders from accountability while leaving minority rights largely unprotected and subject to the whims of Netanyahu’s hard-right government. Proponents say the changes are needed to rein in what they see as an overly activist court.

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