'Israel is a wonder. Let's not destroy it'

Ex-PM Bennett says overhaul fight marks ‘most dangerous point’ in Israeli history

Former premier backs Herzog plan, says solutions possible; touts override clause compromise; slams efforts to force Netanyahu to take leave of absence due to conflict of interest

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett speaks to Channel 12, February 13, 2023. (Channel 12 screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Former prime minister Naftali Bennett speaks to Channel 12, February 13, 2023. (Channel 12 screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday said Israel faced its most serious threat since its establishment, due to the clash between those who oppose the government’s planned judicial overhaul and those who support it.

“We are at the most dangerous point I can remember in this country’s history. We are at this point because two segments of our nation are very alarmed,” he told Army Radio, referring to tensions over the coalition’s proposals.

With regards to the override clause, which in its current proposed form would allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws struck down by the High Court of Justice with a bare majority of 61 members, Bennett said there needed to be a compromise.

The former premier suggested the sides “find the formula, if it’s 66, 67, 68 votes, something in that area, that will force the government to find at least someone in the opposition [to join it]… and can pass reasonable Basic Laws.”

“I definitely think that the High Court overuses the test of reasonableness,” Bennett said, referring to a principle the court uses to evaluate government and administrative decisions. The coalition legislation would deny the court that tool. Bennett argued the test should only be used for administrative decisions, and not government decisions.

Bennett also said that he supported the section of the overhaul proposal that would allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, but that restrictions would need to be placed to prevent them from simply tapping loyalists from their political party. He did not elaborate further.

Thousands protest against the judicial overhaul outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 13, 2023 (Courtesy Arie Leib Abrams/FLASH90)

In a separate interview with Channel 12 on Monday, Bennett backed President Isaac Herzog’s outline for discussions on the government’s judicial overhaul, saying the differences between the coalition and the opposition on conditions for the talks are easily bridgeable.

Bennett proposed a one-week break in legislative processes while the sides negotiate, noting that this would be a small concession on the part of the coalition given that it would likely be a week until the next Knesset vote anyway.

“We need to reform [the justice system], but not take the system from one extreme to another,” Bennett told the network.

“We need to say yes to the president’s initiative,” he added, referring to Herzog’s five-point proposal for a compromise agreement.

President Isaac Herzog delivers a message to the nation from his office in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Bennett’s interviews came after the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee approved for a first plenum reading a bill to cement political control over judicial appointments, as well as to block Supreme Court review of quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

The stormy committee session took place against the backdrop of nationwide mass protests and workers’ strikes against the government’s plans.

The chief architects of the judicial overhaul, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman, said Monday they were willing to meet the opposition without preconditions but did not agree to the president’s call to pause the legislative efforts while talks were held.

Opposition leaders rejected this proposal, saying it was disingenuous to propose talks while moving full steam ahead with a process they see as ruinous to Israel’s democratic character.

Bennett, in the past a fierce proponent of overhauling the justice system with proposals even more far-reaching than the current government’s, said in the interviews that while he supports sweeping changes, they need to be made as part of a process that includes dialogue between the sides.

“The justice system needs to be balanced. [Former Supreme Court president] Aharon Barak came a few decades ago and took it to one side,” Bennett told Channel 12, referencing the former chief justice who is deplored by right-wing critics as the father of judicial activism.

“The court shouldn’t manage government policy, but the government can’t appoint every traffic judge or magistrate,” Bennett said.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and other justices at a hearing of the High Court of Justice on petitions against the appointment of Shas party leader Aryeh Deri as a minister due to his recent conviction for tax offenses, January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There are solutions. It really is solvable. That’s why it really hurts that we may, god forbid, wage a civil war over nothing,” he told Channel 12.

Bennett acknowledged that both sides had legitimate concerns and that a majority wanted reform without “regime change.”

“Levin, and also Lapid — everyone, in general — could sign the same compromise,” he told Channel 12. The former premier claimed he had discussed the issue with all sides involved, including the president, but refused to give details on those talks.

Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid (L) speaks during a joint press conference with fellow opposition party head at the Knesset on February 13, 2023. Justice Minister Yariv Levin holds a press conference at the Knesset on January 4, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett said he regretted some of the language he used in the past when championing reforms to the justice system.

“I don’t want to sit in exile for another 30 years and explain to my grandchildren that in the 75th year of the State of Israel, we waged a civil war because we couldn’t sit for a week and solve this problem,” he said.

Asked about efforts to push the High Court to force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take a leave of absence, Bennett said: “Unequivocally, the High Court should not be involved in that.”

That petition, filed last week by a good-governance watchdog group, argued that Netanyahu, in seeking to enact sweeping judicial changes, is in violation of a conflict of interest arrangement that bars him from involvement in matters that could impact his ongoing corruption trial. The efforts have been dismissed by Netanyahu’s backers as a “coup.”

“He was elected a few months ago, by a great majority of the people. It shouldn’t be on the table at all,” Bennett said.

“I travel the world. People say Israel is a wonder. There is no other, let’s not destroy it,” Bennett said.

Most Popular
read more: