Netanyahu: Protest leaders are 'extreme and dangerous group'

Coalition pitches Tuesday judicial overhaul talks; opposition: Halt the bills first

Lapid, Gantz swiftly reject negotiations initially proposed by business groups, noting government refusal to freeze legislative push; override bill advances out of committee

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, flanked by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, flanked by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and three of the main driving forces behind the government’s controversial judicial overhaul plan called Sunday for the opposition to agree to talks on the contours of the legislative package, while continuing to rebuff the other side’s demand that the legislative push be frozen while negotiations take place.

The proffers were brushed off by opposition leaders, who have demanded talks be preconditioned on a halt to the coalition’s rush to pass wide-reaching reforms that will curtail the High Court’s powers to act as a check on the government or Knesset.

“We are calling for talks, we are bringing the reform to be voted on in the Knesset, and we are ready, committed and believe in truly listening,” Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting.

“I call from here on those members of the opposition who are not trying to drag the country to a constitutional crisis and anarchy… to come and do something simple: bring your alternate suggestions, join me in calling for calming the atmosphere and lowering the flames, and try to come to an agreement. I’m convinced that with goodwill, it can be done in days,” he added.

However, at the same time Netanyahu described the leaders of the protests against the overhaul as an “extreme and dangerous group” that wants to “burn down the club” and “bring chaos.”

He accused the protesters of “attacking policemen, blocking roads, [and] breaking through police barriers,” saying those were “not legitimate expressions of an opinion, but rather violent expressions of forcing an opinion.” He also attacked opposition leader Yair Lapid personally, accusing him of fomenting division.

Protest leaders have long decried the “incitement” by Netanyahu and his allies against those demonstrating against the overhaul.

On Sunday morning, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, released a joint statement saying they were prepared to meet for compromise talks Tuesday night under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.

“We believe that the reform is necessary for democracy, human rights and the economy. We are answering the call for talks without preconditions, and call on responsible parties in the opposition to answer the call as well,” they wrote.

MK Simcha Rothman leads a Constitution Committee meeting at the Knesset on March 5, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The statement came in response to a full-page newspaper ad signed by the heads of four major industrialist associations calling for the coalition and opposition to hash out their differences around the overhaul.

“On Tuesday, all you go to the President’s Residence with the goal of coming to an agreed draft — without preconditions,” the heads of the Israel Manufacturers Association, the Chambers of Commerce and groups representing tech companies and building contractors wrote under the headline “Leadership demands courage.”

Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, tweeted Sunday that “there will be talks only once they announce a halt to the legislation.”

National Unity Party head Benny Gantz, who has been criticized for supporting negotiations over the judicial changes, also dismissed the offer as a political ploy, saying that the Knesset Constitution, Justice and Law Committee was continuing to meet even as they offered to negotiate.

“We don’t need to wait until Tuesday. Announce you are stopping and we’ll meet today at the president’s,” he said in a statement.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The committee met Sunday morning and swiftly voted to send for its first reading in the plenum a bill that would allow the Knesset to preemptively override the court’s oversight. The bill was provisionally approved last Wednesday, but required a hearing on opposition-raised objections.

The Knesset will hold a special plenum session later Sunday and a shortened session Monday before breaking for the Purim holiday until Thursday. Reports have indicated that the coalition has attempted to portray the holiday break as a pause in the legislative process.

Lapid’s Yesh Atid party rejected the idea. “They want us to think of Tuesday and Wednesday as a break for dialogue,” a party spokesperson said. “It’s not.”

“There is no dialogue,” the source added.

File: Then prime minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog (left) at a memorial service marking 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Government leaders have expressed a willingness of varying degrees to hold talks, while also indicating that they expect the changes to the judiciary to pass the Knesset without major changes. They have also refused to calls to slow down the legislative process, and are reportedly aiming to have several key components of the overhaul in place by the time the Knesset takes a recess for the Passover holiday early next month.

Nonetheless, there have been growing grumblings within the party and elsewhere for lawmakers to hold serious talks aimed at softening the proposals, which critics say would fundamentally reshape Israel’s system of governance by neutering the role of the judiciary as a check on government power.

Last week, Likud MKs Yuli Edelstein and Danny Danon issued a joint call with opposition National Unity lawmakers Gadi Eisenkot and Chili Tropper for discussions to be held on the judicial overhaul based on the framework proposed by Herzog.

Edelstein said Saturday he would back a temporary pause for the legislation, but not the 60-day halt demanded by the opposition.

However, Channel 12 said that Levin was showing no sign of budging, and would not freeze the legislation for talks on a potential compromise, arguing that any halt to the process would eventually lead to the coalition’s downfall.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman and Justice Minister Yariv Levin shake hands at a committee hearing, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levin reportedly said the legislative blitz would need to continue in order to keep members of the coalition satisfied — an apparent reference to the various aspects of the overhaul package that are demanded by different parties in the government, such as a bill tailored to return Shas leader Aryeh Deri to the cabinet after the High Court of Justice found his appointment as health and interior minister “unreasonable in the extreme” due to past criminal offenses.

“Coalitions fall when partners are disappointed,” Levin said, according to the report.

Herzog first issued a plea to pause the legislative blitz last month to enable dialogue between coalition and opposition on constructive judicial reform, warning that the rifts over the issue were becoming dangerous. At the time, Levin declared he would not stop the process for even a minute.

The Netanyahu coalition is pushing a dramatic judicial restructuring that would increase government control over the judiciary. Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals, and private companies.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: