'Stop the unilateral legislation; avoid irreversible damage'

Business leaders urge halt overhaul legislation, but refrain from calling strike

Top industry figures tell coalition and opposition to talk about reforming judiciary; Histadrut labor leader denies Finance Ministry using civil service wage deal to threaten him

Owners of the largest Israeli companies arrive for a meeting regarding the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on July 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Owners of the largest Israeli companies arrive for a meeting regarding the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on July 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Dozens of top industry leaders have called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to halt its latest legislative efforts to limit the judiciary, though they did not announce that their businesses would strike this week in support of protests against the contentious legislation.

The so-called Business Forum held a meeting in Tel Aviv Sunday night to discuss its strategy for backing the movement against the overhaul plan. National Unity Party leader MK Benny Gantz of the opposition also attended the meeting.

A key part of the discussion among the 70 gathered business figures — including owners of banks, shopping malls and fashion retail chains — was what level of support they are prepared to give to anti-overhaul protesters who have organized mass demonstrations against the government since January. The protest movement has planned widespread demonstrations and rallies for Tuesday, including disrupting roads and train services, and pushed business leaders to shutter their companies in support.

In a statement, the business group urged the government “to stop the unilateral legislation and prevent the irreversible damage caused to the Israeli economy, due to the rift that has opened up in the nation and due to the loss of confidence of investors in the Israeli economy.”

It also said that “after the stoppage of the legislation, we call on the coalition and the opposition to return immediately to negotiations that will yield agreements.”

National Unity MK Benny Gantz arrives for a meeting with owners of the largest Israeli companies regarding the government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on July 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu had halted the legislation in March to allow for talks with opposition party representatives, hosted by President Isaac Herzog. But months of negotiations failed to bring an agreement and Netanyahu’s coalition of right, far-right, and religious parties has recently forged ahead unilaterally with remaking the justice system.

It is currently advancing legislation to prevent courts from using the test of “reasonableness” in evaluating decisions made by the cabinet and ministers.

While not calling for a strike, the business forum issued a warning that “as long as the leaders from the entire political spectrum do not act as required… before the situation becomes irreversible, the forum will act decisively using the legal means at its disposal in order to bring the politicians back to the negotiating table.”

One notable absentee from the meeting was Arnon Bar-David, chair of the Histadrut Labor Federation, who has resisted calls from protest leaders to order a strike of the powerful union.

Kan news reported without citing sources that at the closed-door meeting, Harel Vizel, CEO of the Fox Group of clothing outlets, claimed Bar-David told him he had been warned by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to stay out of the debate over the overhaul plan.

Vizel reportedly said he is in contact with Bar-David “all the time” and that the labor leader explained that he has been working for the past six months on a collective wage agreement for civil servants that will apply to some 600,000 employees. Vizel quoted Bar-David as telling him “I am getting threats that if I say something [against the overhaul] they won’t sign.”

Israeli businessman Harel Vizel arrives for a meeting with owners of the largest Israeli companies regarding the government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on July 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Bar-David denied the report, saying in a statement that he has not spoken with Vizel since March and that he wouldn’t allow himself to be bullied by anyone.

“No one threatens me, and I am not susceptible to extortion by any side,” he said in a statement reported by Kan.

“The things that were leaked are nothing more than a bunch of nonsense,” he said, urging everyone concerned to “act responsibly for all our futures.”

The Business Forum also denied the report, saying in a statement: “The leak does not represent what was said in the room. There was no conversation with Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David recently. We will hold a dialogue with him and the other influential players in the economy in order to prevent a rift in the nation. An orderly announcement will be issued later.”

Earlier, Kan reported that Bar-David told a meeting of Histadrut leaders that he will not call a strike in protest of the reasonableness clause.

Histadrut chief Arnon Bar-David declares a general strike in protest of the judicial overhaul, at a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 27, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In late March the union joined a daylong general strike triggered by Netanyahu’s decision — later reversed — to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant after Gallant called for a pause to the judicial legislation amid growing unrest. The strike was called off the same day, after Netanyahu agreed to pause the legislation to allow for negotiations with the opposition.

Last week Bar-David urged Netanyahu to “stop the chaos” and threatened that the Histadrut could take action if things escalate.

At a conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Bar-David appealed directly to Netanyahu in a public speech: “Stop the crazy chaos in Israeli society as soon as possible. When the situation reaches an extreme and all other paths have been taken, we will intervene and use our power.”

On Friday, Histadrut spokesperson Peter Lerner told the New York Times that “The option of general strike is on the table.”

“Our responsibility is to workers’ rights,” Lerner said. “Our responsibility is to Israeli society. We called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the chaos and negotiate with the players, and that’s what we expect. If not, we have the power of the strike.”

Protesters opposed to the coalition’s judicial overhaul gather in Kfar Saba, July 14, 2023 (Gabriel Melzer)

Protests are ramping up this week as the coalition is planning to convene the Knesset plenum on Sunday — a day it does not traditionally meet — to pass the “reasonableness” bill into law before parliament recesses at the end of the month.

Critics say the legislation is part of the government’s attempt to shield itself and its decisions from judicial review, enabling it to appoint unqualified or corrupt officials and oust technocrats it has deemed disloyal. Supporters of the move say it is necessary to correct the overreaching of unelected judges interfering with the decisions of a democratically elected government.

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