Defending judicial remake, Netanyahu hints at limits on protests against government

PM insists legal overhaul will be advanced responsibly, equates far-right coalition MK’s call to arrest opposition chiefs with signs by protesters likening government to Nazis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces his plans to combat cost of living, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces his plans to combat cost of living, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday defended the planned judicial overhaul recently unveiled by his government while hinting there may be limits to how much he will tolerate protests against his government.

“We are not weakening the judicial system, we are strengthening all our systems, democracy and the rule of law that are all dependent on the correct balance between institutions,” Netanyahu said at a press conference during which he presented his coalition’s economic plans.

“This balance that we find in all countries around the world has been somewhat broken, as you know, in Israel, and we have to return it in a responsible way and that’s what we will do,” he added.

Earlier Wednesday evening, Justice Minister Yariv Levin published the first pieces of draft legislation aimed at completely restructuring the legal system as announced last week. The overhaul will grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 MKs.

Since the planned reforms were announced last week, opposition lawmakers have warned they risk upending Israel’s democracy and have urged Israelis to take to the streets to protest.

The calls angered coalition lawmakers, including far-right Otzma Yehudit MK Tzvika Fogel, who called for Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid and National Unity chair Benny Gantz to be arrested for treason.

MK Zvika Fogel, Otzma Yehudit, poses at the Knesset on November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu on Wednesday again condemned Fogel’s remarks while seemingly equating it to signs seen at an anti-government protest over the weekend that likened ministers to Nazis. “In a democracy, you don’t arrest the heads of the opposition, and in a democracy, the opposition does not call the heads of government Nazis, and the elected government the Third Reich.” MKs opposing the coalition have not used such language.

“I would like to issue an appeal for calm in the public discourse. The state will not be destroyed, democracy will not be obliterated,” the premier said.

Placards blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for political violence and likening him, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and their government to Nazis, brandished at a Tel Aviv political protest, January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The essence of democracy is that debates — including the one we are having today — are not done with bullets. They are decided at the ballot box and in votes at the Knesset. We can disagree, but we must define the limits of discourse,” he continued, appearing to take issue with the rhetoric used against his government.

“More than anything there can be no violence — no license for violence, no license to block roads or to carry out other actions that harm the citizens.”

The comments came as Lapid gave his first interview Wednesday night since being replaced as premier. He pushed back on Netanyahu’s attempt to equate between the actions of those protesting the new government and the remarks made by coalition lawmakers themselves.

“I hate these comparisons,” Lapid told Channel 13. “There is a difference between those who try to trample our democracy and those who are trying to protect it.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This thing they do where they incite in the morning and in the evening call on everyone to calm down is intolerable hypocrisy,” he added.

Lapid, who is now Knesset opposition leader, did denounce remarks by former Meretz MK Yair Golan, who called for a civil uprising against the new government. The Yesh Atid head said he and Gantz were not saying there should be a civil war, rather warning that the government’s actions could well spark one.

Lapid also called on President Isaac Herzog to speak out more clearly against the government’s judicial overhaul.

Additionally, Lapid said he spoke with Gantz and the two decided not to attend Saturday’s planned protest in Tel Aviv against the government so that it won’t be overly politicized.

Also on Wednesday night, a handful of activists from Netanyahu’s Likud party demonstrated in Tel Aviv outside the home of former Supreme Court chief justice Aharon Barak, who warned against the planned judicial changes in a series of television interviews last weekend.

“You’re corrupt, you’re the head of a criminal organization,” an activist could be heard shouting from a megaphone in video from the protest, before accusing prosecutors and the judiciary of fabricating criminal charges against right-wing politicians.

The claims were in reference to Netanyahu’s ongoing trial on graft charges, in which he denies wrongdoing. The premier has argued without evidence that the indictments against him are part of an effort by political rivals, the media, prosecutors and law enforcement to remove him from office.

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