Lapid: Democracies don't trample on citizens or judiciary

Ben Gvir rejects party member’s call to arrest ‘treasonous’ opposition heads

Minister tells MKs police won’t go after political opponents; Netanyahu: Democracies don’t arrest opposition chiefs, but civil disobedience calls, Nazi comparisons unacceptable

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at an Otzma Yehudit faction meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 9, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at an Otzma Yehudit faction meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 9, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir pushed back against a call by a member of his Otzma Yehudit party on Tuesday to arrest opposition leaders and former MKs for “treason,” telling party members that police will not go after political opponents and that they should not speak in such terms.

“The police will not arrest political opponents — it does not work like that, we do not intend to do such a thing,” he said in an audio message on a closed WhatsApp group with party members, cited by Ynet.

“I understand everyone in light of the incitement and sedition against us, but don’t go in the direction of arresting Lapid and Gantz, no way,” he said, according to the Kan public broadcaster

“Don’t go in wrong and inappropriate directions,” Ben Gvir went on, Ynet said. “I ask everyone who is interviewed, not to talk about this matter — not about handcuffs nor arrests. No political opponent is going to be arrested.”

The Kan public broadcaster reported that Ben Gvir did not intend to respond publicly to the call earlier on Tuesday by Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, to jail opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, and former MKs Yair Golan and Moshe Ya’alon for their stated denunciation of the Netanyahu coalition’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.

In an interview with Kan, Fogel accused them of “treason against the state” and said they were the “most dangerous people right now,” calling for “these four [to] be arrested.”

Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel speaks to the Kan public broadcaster in an interview, January 10, 2023. (Kan/screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Asked by the incredulous interviewer if she had heard him correctly, Fogel doubled down.

“That’s exactly what I said. These four are now talking about war… If they were calling for protests, I’d give them every right to protest. But they’re talking in terms of me being an enemy,” he said.

He added: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s treason against the state, if I wasn’t clear enough.”

Fogel is slated to become head of the Knesset’s Public Security Committee in several weeks’ time, giving him oversight over the police force, which is under the purview of Otzma Yehudit leader Ben Gvir, the new minister of national security.

Fogel’s comments drew widespread condemnation, including from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whose office issued a statement saying that he had told President Isaac Herzog in a phone call: “In a democratic country, opposition chiefs aren’t arrested, just like government ministers aren’t called Nazis, Jewish governments aren’t called the Third Reich and civil disobedience among the public isn’t encouraged.”

A large Saturday evening Tel Aviv protest against the government’s judicial reform platform included placards comparing the government and the justice minister, Yariv Levin, to Nazis, behavior that Netanyahu said should be condemned by the opposition.

Lapid, Gantz, Golan and Ya’alon have lambasted the new government’s plan to implement a sweeping judicial reform that critics say would neuter the country’s judiciary and allow the government to harm minority rights while eliminating oversight by legal advisers and the High Court of Justice.

Protesters hold signs, including one with Nazi-style imagery, at an anti-government rally at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. The sign on the left reads ‘Know from where you came and where you are going.’ The second sign reads ‘We won’t allow ayatollahs.’ (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz on Monday accused Netanyahu of “leading toward civil war,” and Lapid urged his supporters to take to the streets as part of a “war over our home.” Golan has called for “civil disobedience,” and Ya’alon has urged the police chief to defy orders by National Security Minister Ben Gvir, who has been given unprecedented powers over the police as part of the new coalition, with greater authority to dictate policy.

Responding to Netanyahu’s statement on the matter on Tuesday, Lapid tweeted: “In a democratic country, they do not trample on citizens or the justice system.

“You have become a weak prime minister who trembles in fear of his extremist partners. They disregard you and are leading the State of Israel to collapse,” said the former premier.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaks in the Knesset plenum on January 2, 2023. (Knesset spokesperson)

Netanyahu’s coalition of the far-right Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties and ultra-Orthodox factions United Torah Judaism and Shas, together with his right-wing Likud party, was sworn into office late last month, following far-reaching concessions by Likud to coalition partners and promises to deliver massive, controversial changes to Israel’s judiciary.

Commenting on Fogel’s interview earlier, Lapid tweeted: “It was obvious that this would come. In non-democratic countries, the leadership always threatens to arrest opposition leaders.”

“This is how democracy falls apart, in a day,” he wrote. “Ben Gvir says to use water cannons against our protesters, MK Fogel says Gantz and I should be arrested and thrown in jail for treason, and in Beersheba, a man tries to run over students [who support us] for rallying and making use of their right to free speech. We will not allow ourselves or our beloved country to be overrun.”

National Unity MK Gadi Eisenkot, who like Gantz and Ya’alon is a former IDF chief of staff, called on Fogel to “take back his severe remarks.” He urged Netanyahu to “immediately condemn” the comments, adding: “A coalition that calls for the arrest of opposition leaders is unacceptable in a democracy.”

Gantz issued a fiery statement that didn’t directly comment on Fogel’s remark, saying that Israel “needs wide agreements and not the continuation of incitement and factionalism.” He demanded that Netanyahu “condemn the attacks on protesters and the severe remarks,” urging him to “act to heal the nation’s rifts, not to widen them.”

Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Police chief Kobi Shabtai attend a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Kan quoted unnamed Likud ministers calling the remarks “damaging” and criticizing Ben Gvir for his silence on the matter, urging him to “bring his party under control.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Likud called on “everyone — from right and left — to calm the waters,” adding: “Words carry significance and we are entering dangerous territory. Even in times of deep disagreement, the job of public leaders is to preserve national unity.”

Likud MK Danny Danon tweeted that “the comments made today in the heat of the discourse are unacceptable,” saying that while he is ideologically opposed to Lapid and Gantz and views their recent remarks as no less harmful, “the calls to imprison them cross all the lines.”

However, Fogel received support from Tradition Minister Amichai Eliyahu, also from Otzma Yehudit.

“I don’t understand how we are not all echoing the cries of pain made by my friend Zvika Fogel,” he said, accusing Lapid, former chief justice Aharon Barak and others of “putting a potential civil war on the public agenda and undoing the civil basis that unites us, and everyone is silent.”

Otzma Yehudit MK Amichai Eliyahu speaks in the Knesset on December 6, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

A third Otzma Yehudit MK, deputy minister Almog Cohen, echoed the sentiment, telling Channel 13 that if opposition leaders continue “their incitement and desire for bloodshed on the streets — they will be put in handcuffs.”

Otzma Yehudit’s Yitzhak Wasserlauf, the minister for the development of the Galilee and the Negev, released a statement saying: “I suggest that everyone calm down — that Gantz not threaten civil war, that Lapid not warn it will end in bloodshed. My brothers on the right, let’s calm things down and not be drawn into provocations from the other side.”

Thousands of anti-government protesters held demonstrations in Tel Aviv on Saturday, and smaller protests have continued this week as opposition figures urge mass rallies and strikes against the government’s policies and planned changes, arguing that it is trying to neuter Israel’s democratic character.

Ben Gvir has ordered police to start taking a heavier hand against the protests, including arresting those who block roads. Police reportedly pushed back on Ben Gvir’s call for a tougher stance.

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