Ahead of Netanyahu visit, German president voices concern about judicial overhaul

Steinmeier says Berlin admires Israel’s strong rule of law; laments peace in Mideast seems increasingly distant due to overhaul, security situation; praises Herzog mediation effort

Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks in Putrajaya, on February 17, 2023. (Arif Kartono/AFP)
Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks in Putrajaya, on February 17, 2023. (Arif Kartono/AFP)

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed concern on Friday over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s contentious judicial overhaul plans.

The German president reportedly made the comments at a Berlin reception to mark the 50th anniversary of the University of Haifa, a number of days before Netanyahu was set to arrive in the German capital on an official visit.

“The plan to reorganize the rule of law on the part of the government in Israel worries me,” Steinmeier said.

“Germany has always looked with great admiration at the strong and vibrant rule of law in Israel, and knows how much it is needed in the region,” Steinmeier said, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

In his speech, Steinmeier connected the overhaul and the deteriorating security situation in Israel and the West Bank to the fact that a vision for a “better and more peaceful Middle East, where people of all cultures and religions live in equality and peace” seemed to be increasingly distant, the Ynet news site reported.

The report said Steinmeier praised the Thursday speech by President Isaac Herzog in which his Israeli counterpart denounced the overhaul as “oppressive” and harmful to democracy, and called for it to be abandoned immediately and replaced by a framework for consensual reform.

“I am in constant contact with my friend and colleague Isaac Herzog and trust his wise and balanced voice in the Israeli debate,” Steinmeier said.

President Isaac Herzog gives a primetime speech pleading for compromise on the judicial overhaul plan, on March 9, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The legislative plans by the right-religious government, Israel’s most hardline to date, have sparked mass public protests for ten weeks, as well as fierce backlash from opposition politicians and dire warnings from economists, business leaders, legal experts and security officials.

Critics of the government’s divisive judicial overhaul have said the coalition’s proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have called it a much-needed reform to rein in an “activist” court.

Mounted police are deployed as Israelis block a main road to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Steinmeier is not the first German official to publicly express concern about Israel’s judicial overhaul.

Last month, at a Berlin meeting with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock publicly voiced her concerns.

“We abroad are concerned about some Israeli legislative plans,” Baerbock said at a joint press conference. “The values that bind us together include the protection of principles of the rule of law such as judicial independence. This was always a hallmark of Israel.”

The German foreign minister expressed her concerns that Israel was moving away from the liberal democratic model by implementing far-reaching reforms to its justice system, conveying the German government’s views that a strong democracy requires a strong High Court that can provide oversight of the legality of the majority’s decisions.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, right, and her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen leave a news conference after a meeting at the foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, February 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Steinmeier’s comments came as Netanyahu is set to fly to Germany for an official visit later in the week.

It would be Netanyahu’s third multi-day trip to a European capital in a number of weeks.

He is also expected to visit London at the end of the month.

Netanyahu is currently in Rome for a three-day trip, during which he held a meeting with far-right Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Italy’s PM Giorgia Meloni in Rome’s Palazzo Chigi, March 10, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu has been the target of criticism for the timing of the trip, the second in as many months that saw him meet in a European capital with a country’s leader, then spend the Jewish Sabbath staying in an elegant hotel on the taxpayer’s dime.

A senior Israeli official dismissed the claim, saying that Israel told the Italians that Netanyahu couldn’t come from Monday to Wednesday because of votes in the Knesset, and that Friday afternoon was the only time that worked for both parties.

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