Ex-president Rivlin: Compromise on overhaul might still damage democracy

In first TV interview since leaving office, Rivlin says he didn’t join protests against defense minister’s sacking because it was inappropriate, but phoned him to offer support

Former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks at a conference at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, January 17, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
File: Former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks at a conference at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, January 17, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Former president Reuven Rivlin said a potential compromise deal on the coalition’s controversial judicial overhaul may still harm Israel’s democratic character, in his first television interview since leaving office.

“There’s no compromising on democracy,” Rivlin said in an interview with Channel 13 that will be aired on Saturday. The network released excerpts from the segment on Thursday.

Rivlin also said he was conflicted over his decision to not protest in March when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — a move that was later reversed — over Gallant’s call to halt the overhaul.

“Why didn’t I go out onto the streets? That’s what I asked myself,” Rivlin said. “I couldn’t go to the streets because I was once the president, and it’s not customary. I didn’t do it out of respect for the presidency, but as a citizen born in the State of Israel.”

“It was a night of great anxiety about what was going on in the whole system,” he added.

Netanyahu paused the overhaul plans following mass protests and a general strike held in response to Gallant’s firing, opening the door for compromise talks between opposition and coalition representatives hosted by President Isaac Herzog.

Despite nearly two months of ongoing talks between teams representing the coalition and the opposition’s two biggest parties, no tangible progress has been made, according to sources close to the issue.

Israelis block the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul on March 26, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu reinstated Gallant weeks after he was fired, while facing declining public support in polls and growing anger and anxiety over a wave of violence on multiple fronts.

In the interview, Rivlin said he called Gallant’s home the night he was fired to tell the defense minister he respected “brave people who stand by their opinions, even when their personal future is at stake.”

“He took a courageous step, and he made the prime minister understand that his role as defense minister is very important, that the premier and defense minister should cooperate above all, in terms of strengthening ties and relations between them, even if they do not always agree,” Rivlin said.

Rivlin is a former Likud minister who was president from 2014 to 2021. In a speech in December, he labeled the judicial plans an attempt to “destroy” the courts, and that it was proposed out of “vindictiveness.”

Up until March, the coalition rushed forward with legislation that would bring most judicial appointments under government control and curb the oversight powers of the High Court of Justice.

Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against the government, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.

Once the state budget is approved, it appears likely that the coalition will return its focus to its judicial overhaul agenda.

The judicial appointments bill is on the cusp of being passed into law and can be brought for its final, back-to-back votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice. However, such action is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public unrest.

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