Ben Gvir promises more bills; Gantz to PM: Avoid 'disaster'

Facing intense opposition, coalition indicates determination to pass overhaul bill

Ministers insist legislation weakening court oversight of government will be passed by Monday, despite mass protests and some 10,000 reservists threatening to stop volunteering

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition indicated Saturday they were determined to pass, as is, their bill to curtail judicial oversight of government decisions, with the bill scheduled to be debated for its second and third (final) readings on Sunday and passed into law on Monday.

The government’s determination comes despite hundreds of thousands staging mass demonstrations; 10,000 reservists, including pilots and others in top military units, saying they are halting their volunteer service; threats of strikes by various professional organizations; growing calls for civil disobedience; and an emergency meeting by the country’s largest labor union to decide on a course of action.

Netanyahu has told coalition lawmakers that if no agreement can be reached with the opposition on the so-called reasonableness bill — which would bar courts from using the judicial test of “reasonableness” to evaluate politicians’ decisions — it will be passed as is and as scheduled on Monday, Channel 12 news reported Saturday.

An unnamed senior official in the coalition told the Haaretz news site that Netanyahu — who was set to undergo surgery early Sunday to install a cardiac pacemaker — sounded “very determined” to pass the bill during a conversation they recently had.

A last-minute compromise seemed extremely unlikely as Channel 12 reported that there was no contact over the weekend between coalition leaders and opposition party leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz.

The report indicated that Netanyahu was unwilling to unilaterally moderate the provisions of the bill or to accede to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s reported plea to delay the vote and allow more time to negotiate a compromise on the bill, amid concerns over the impact of the reservists’ refusals to serve. The network said Gallant’s request has been rejected by senior coalition officials.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, seen with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Minister Dudi Amsalem and MK Avraham Betzalel during a plenum session at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Kan public broadcaster reported that while some in the coalition had considered moderating the bill’s provisions even without a deal with the opposition, Justice Minister Yariv Levin objected to that.

Netanyahu was said to have told Knesset members, President Isaac Herzog and Histadrut labor federation chief Arnon Bar-David over the past week that no further bills will be passed without broad agreement.

Additionally, Netanyahu was working to ensure all lawmakers in his ruling Likud party vote for the bill, fearing that some, like Gallant, may end up voting against it, according to several reports.

The Prime Minister’s Office was particularly concerned over the intentions of the defense minister, MKs Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan, Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel and Economy Minister Nir Barkat, the reports said, listing Likud members who have been vocal on the need for a compromise, while noting Barkat has made it clear that he will vote for the bill even if a deal isn’t reached.

Channel 12 further reported, without citing sources, that IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has told Netanyahu and Gallant that if the law passes, and hundreds of reserve pilots indeed stop their service, the Israeli Air Force’s operational capabilities would be adversely affected within 48 hours.

The Israel Defense Forces denied the report: “The report… is not true and was not released by the IDF.”

“The IDF discusses readiness exclusively with the political echelon,” it added.

But several Hebrew media reports said Halevi was expected to speak with Netanyahu on Sunday about the growing number of reservists suspending their volunteer service and the expected impact this could have on military readiness.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Many coalition members have publicly vowed to the government’s supporters that the bill will pass, especially in light of the reservists’ threats. Many said they cannot under any circumstances succumb to what they say is blackmail by members of the military, which they warned could create a dangerous precedent.

Education Minister Yoav Kisch (Likud), a former combat pilot, told Channel 12 that the reasonableness bill “does not spell the demise of Israel and the end of democracy,” as critics have argued. “The government cannot capitulate in the face of pressure from [some in the] military,” he added.

Channel 12 also quoted unnamed coalition sources saying that the coalition “cannot concede to a group of officers led by Ehud Barak” — the former prime minister and ex-IDF chief who is repeatedly cited by members of the coalition as a central figure galvanizing reservists’ opposition to the judicial overhaul.

Justice Minister Levin, the architect of the overhaul, told supporters of the plan: “We can’t give up. Otherwise, Ehud Barak and the group of reservist pilots will become the de facto rulers of the country and decide everything.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli said the “reasonableness” bill would be passed in the coming days “as planned,” and railed against the reservists’ actions, likening the threats to a mafia protection racket.

“The Knesset and government of Israel cannot afford to surrender to the protection threats of political insubordinates,” Chikli tweeted.

Energy Minister Israel Katz, a longtime Likud member, similarly vowed the legislation will be passed in the next couple of days, whether in its current version or in more broadly “agreed upon” format.

“I represent citizens who aren’t willing to have their votes be annulled because of insubordination threats, or because of the blocking of Ben Gurion Airport, Ayalon [Highway] and train stations,” Katz wrote on Twitter, listing recent locations of anti-overhaul protests. “There’s an attempt here to exploit military service to force the government to change policies.”

Members of the ‘Brothers in Arms’ reservists protest group hold a press conference in Herzliya, July 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar said: “In a democracy, you influence government decisions at the ballot box, not through refusing army service.”

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri said he was going “arm to arm” with Netanyahu and trying to reach understandings with the opposition, but added that by the end of the current Knesset session at the end of the month, the reasonableness bill “will be legislated with an agreement or, regrettably, without agreement.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tweeted after Shabbat ended: “Good week. The salad bar is open.”

The remark was a reference to the far-right politician’s recent comment that the “reasonableness” bill was “just like the opening salads [in a meal] to whet your appetite,” meaning he would not be content with just passing that bill and would push to advance other far-reaching legislative changes the coalition has proposed as part of its overhaul plan.

Ben Gvir faced criticism from Likud MKs Eli Dallal and Dan Illouz for the remark.

“We are in complicated days, with masses of concerned citizens. We’re all brothers and I love all Israeli citizens, and have great love [for] those protesting against the reform,” Dallal said in response.

“Public officials need to calm down,” he added. “The State of Israel will remain Jewish and democratic.”

Illouz said that the coalition needs “to embrace” Israelis who are against the measure, “not stick fingers in their eyes.”

Meanwhile, Gantz publicly pleaded with Netanyahu Saturday evening to stop the legislation, arguing that the premier’s Knesset majority doesn’t give him a mandate “to destroy democracy and tear the nation apart.”

At a protest in Givat Shmuel, Gantz said: “A true leader knows how to listen to the citizens and do the right thing. We mustn’t let extremists decide our future. I call on him to stop, behave responsibly and reach agreements. If not, we face a Tisha B’Av-like disaster.”

National Unity head Benny Gantz speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on June July 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That was a reference to the destruction of the Jewish Temples that stood in Jerusalem thousands of years ago, which will be marked on the Tisha B’Av fast and mourning day on Thursday. According to Jewish tradition, one of the leading reasons for the destruction was baseless hate within the Nation of Israel.

Proponents of the bill argue that nixing the use of the “reasonableness” doctrine is needed to halt excessive judicial interference in government decisions, arguing that this amounts to unelected judges substituting their own judgment for that of elected officials. They also say there are other judicial doctrines that will allow judges to evaluate politicians’ decisions.

Opponents argue that the legislation is far too broad and will weaken the court’s ability to review decisions that harm civil rights and hinder its ability to protect the independence of senior civil servants who hold sensitive positions, such as the attorney general, police commissioner and others.

The “reasonableness” bill would be the first to pass out of the coalition’s planned judicial overhaul package, which if passed in its entirety would give the government near-complete control over the appointment of Israel’s judges, allow the Knesset to preemptively shield legislation from any judicial review, allow ministers to appoint and fire their own legal advisers, and widely constrain the High Court’s capacity to overrule laws and government decisions. Critics say the package would undermine Israel’s democratic foundations.

The Knesset is set to begin debating the reasonableness bill on Sunday ahead of a vote on its second and third — and final — readings on Monday.

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