Defense Prize winners: Israel's strength, future in danger

Ahead of weekend rallies, Lapid and ex-defense officials warn against ‘regime change’

Noting threats to attorney general amid increasingly heated national debate, opposition leader says some on right have ‘lost sight of right and wrong. It’s insanity’

People protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, in Tel Aviv, on January 28, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
People protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, in Tel Aviv, on January 28, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Ahead of the latest in a line of mass protests against the government’s plans for sweeping changes to the judiciary, opposition leader Yair Lapid said Friday he would not hold negotiations with the coalition, since the government was not seeking reform but “regime change.” The Yesh Atid party leader repeated his call for President Isaac Herzog to form an independent commission that would propose a framework for judicial reform, saying this would be a more trustworthy format.

Saturday night was to see the latest in a line of weekly protests against the scheme across the country amid inclement weather, with the largest rally once again planned for central Tel Aviv and other demonstrations planned in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and numerous other towns.

Speakers at the Tel Aviv demonstration were to include former police chief Roni Alsheich, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, and Hila Peer, chairwoman of Aguda-The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel.

Speaking to Channel 12, Lapid said if the currently proposed overhaul is passed, “we won’t be a democracy anymore,” characterizing the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “a group of criminals here who are passing laws to save themselves from [legal] trouble.

“People are looking at this and wondering, where is the Declaration of Independence? Where are the values we grew up on? Our ability to live together under common laws? It’s dangerous, it’s dire and it’s taking us to very bad places. I’ve never been as worried as I am today,” he said.

In a position paper publicized on Thursday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said the government’s plans would give it virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character. In their current form, Baharav-Miara is not expected to defend the plans at the High Court of Justice if and when petitions are filed against them.

MK Yair Lapid speaks at the outset of Yesh Atid’s Knesset faction meeting, January 16, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Noting that security agencies have raised the threat level for Baharav-Miara to the highest possible level, Lapid said that “the highest level of security means there are threats to murder her. Threats because she is doing her job. A person does not get security for the highest level of threat without there being explicit threats to murder her.”

He blamed incitement on the right. “They’ve lost sight of right and wrong, of what is allowed and forbidden, what is legal and illegal.”

“It’s insanity,” he said.

Thursday also saw some 140 past recipients of the prestigious Israel Defense Prize sign a letter in which they warned the radical reforms constitute “regime change” that will cause serious injury to democracy, harm the economy and lead to a brain drain and international divestment. The signatories warned it will “endanger the strength and future of Israel” and “award frightful power to a single branch of government” while “harming checks on and oversight of the regime.”

The prize is an annual one awarded by the president to individuals and bodies deemed to have made a significant contribution to the country’s security. Signatories include former senior officials in the defense establishment involved in intelligence, technologies, weapons development and more.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Atef Safadi/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Despite objections by the attorney general, the Supreme Court chief justice and numerous other jurists, economists, businesspeople, academics, tech leaders and more, the government has vowed to press forward with its legislative plans. The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is set to continue its work on the bills next week. According to Channel 12, coalition officials hope to bring them to a first plenum vote by the end of February.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including Supreme Court justices; severely limit the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down legislation; and allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs.

Critics have staged a series of large protests saying the changes will gut the courts, leave minority rights unprotected and concentrate too much power in the hands of the ruling coalition. Proponents say the current system gives unelected judges and lawyers too much power over elected officials.

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara speaks during a conference at the University of Haifa, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

In her position paper Thursday, Baharav-Miara said “such a dramatic process” should not be advanced without more thorough consultations and groundwork.

“Every one of the proposed arrangements raises substantial problems that go to the root of the principle of the separation of powers, judicial independence and the professionalism of the judicial branch, protection of the rights of the individual, the rule of law, and the preservation of proper governance,” wrote the attorney general.

“Adopting the proposed arrangement would lead to a governmental regime in which the executive and legislative branches would have broad and in practice unlimited authority,” Baharav-Miara wrote.

She added that it would leave Israel’s system of government “without any institutional provision” against the improper use of legislation to circumvent judicial review “or to harm the core characteristics of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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