'In South Africa as well, the whites eventually lost'

Arguing overhaul still ‘good,’ Likud minister likens opponents to apartheid regime

Breaking with remarks made by Netanyahu a day earlier, David Amsalem says judicial shakeup ‘critical’ and Levin’s initial far-reaching package of proposals is only ‘the beginning’

Minister David Amsalem at the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister David Amsalem at the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud’s David Amsalem, the second minister in the Justice Ministry, on Tuesday called the coalition’s legislative bid to drastically weaken the courts a “good” idea, saying he “disagreed” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who a day earlier distanced himself from his coalition’s judicial shakeup.

“I disagree with what the prime minister said on the subject of the reform,” Amsalem said, nodding to Netanyahu’s Monday remarks on the X platform, in which Netanyahu called pieces of the overhaul “bad” and claimed he had stepped in to prevent their passage.

“I think that the reform that [Justice] Minister [Yariv] Levin [presented] is the beginning of the reform, it’s not everything, and it’s the way to go, all the way. It’s a good reform,” Amsalem continued from the Knesset rostrum, speaking during a special parliamentary session on Tuesday.

“The State of Israel, I say, is not a democratic state and we want to make it a democratic state,” asserted the firebrand minister.

Amsalem, who has been a longtime critic of the judiciary and claims it is discriminatory against Israelis of Middle Eastern origin like himself, appeared to compare the plight of right-wing Mizrahim to the official oppression of Blacks under apartheid South Africa — and opponents of the coalition’s judicial overhaul to the ruling regime there.

“In South Africa as well, the whites eventually lost. We are not second-class citizens,” he said. “We’ll never be second-class citizens, even if we need to fight you until the end.”

“We will continue with the [judicial] reform because it is critical for the State of Israel,” added Amsalem, who has been known for his incendiary remarks since becoming a lawmaker in 2015.

In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Elon Musk during a live discussion on the social media platform X, at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, September 18, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/ GPO)

Amsalem’s comments came after Netanyahu said during a live-streamed chat with Elon Musk while visiting the US that the government’s original overhaul proposal “was bad” and, apparently referring in particular to its provision for an override clause to prevent the Supreme Court from striking down legislation, called it a “mistake” that would have “mov[ed] the pendulum from one side to the other.” But he said he still intended to change the way Israel chooses its judges, calling this “a minor correction.”

It was something of a public U-turn for Netanyahu, who in January authorized his government to advance the overhaul package and its many bills at lightning pace despite mass protests and opposition voiced by countless top officials. He publicly defended that plan in multiple media statements and appearances.

On January 8, four days after Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented the legislative package, Netanyahu backed the plan in public comments at a cabinet meeting, saying it was “the realization of the voters’ will.” He specified that “the balance between the branches [of governance] must include an override clause.” And he declared that “the last word is that of the Knesset, because the Knesset represents the people.”

Netanyahu suspended the entire legislative package in late March, as the country descended into near-chaos, with massive protests, threats of nationwide strikes and a threat of refusal to serve by tens of thousands of army reservists. Some of the legislation has remained frozen since then, but a law barring the courts from using the “reasonableness” standard to review ministerial and government decisions was enacted in July, and a core bill, remaking the Judicial Selection Committee, is a mere floor vote away from becoming law.

During a conversation that also focused on antisemitism, confronting rogue actors and nations, and artificial intelligence, it was Musk who first raised the topic of the judicial overhaul, noting protests that were being held outside his Tesla offices, part of the demonstrations that accompanied the premier since he kicked off his US visit earlier in the day.

Protesters rally outside Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits with businessman Elon Musk on September 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Before departing Israel, Netanyahu accused the protesters against the judicial overhaul of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their activities against him abroad, which he framed as being against Israel rather than against the actions of his hardline government. His office later claimed he was referring to the fact that what he called the “demonstrations against Israel” would be held, while he speaks to the UN on Friday, at the same time as protests by pro-PLO and pro-BDS activists.

Despite Netanyahu’s attempt to soften the gibe, members of his coalition continued to lash out at the demonstrators, with a minister calling them “evil” and a lawmaker saying they were “worse” than Iran and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Speaking Tuesday to the Knesset, Amsalem joined in the criticism of the anti-overhaul protesters in the United States, claiming “they crossed every red line.”

“You are dragging all of Israel into the abyss. You are causing the mess and say we are responsible?” he railed. “You disgust me, you are a disgrace. Anyone who does something like this is harming the State of Israel’s security.”

Following the demonstrations outside the airport in San Jose and the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, during Netanyahu’s meeting with Musk, the premier and his entourage were also met by protesters when they arrived in New York, where demonstrators are planning further rallies throughout the week.

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