Lapid: Point of no return for Israeli society is weeks away

Gantz: Israel to grind to a halt if judicial blitz continues; coalition pushes back

Smotrich, Deri say they support dialogue as long as it doesn’t derail current push to overhaul legal system; Netanyahu reportedly says Levin is Herzog’s address for talks on reform

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Senior opposition figure Benny Gantz called Monday for citizens to grind the country to a halt if the government continues to rapidly push its far-reaching judicial changes, as the sides remained at an impasse regarding efforts to hold compromise talks on the matter.

Following five weeks of steady civil protest, a renewed offer by Gantz for collaboration, and an effort being developed by President Isaac Herzog to convene a panel for an agreed course of action, Gantz told reporters before his National Unity faction meeting in the Knesset: “If the [legislative] race continues, we will also use the right to strike — and masses of citizens will bring the country to a standstill.”

In addition to plans by protest leaders to encourage larger strikes than the current, largely symbolic, hour-long strikes held by some high-tech companies, economic and civil society leaders have warned of potential harm to the Israeli economy.

They have been accused by the government of exacerbating investors’ fears, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vigorously hit back against their warnings, meeting with Israeli and French businessmen and holding emergency press conferences to restore public confidence.

On Monday, Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich and Shas chief Aryeh Deri, both of the coalition, dismissed dialogue overtures as being designed to derail the overhaul plan, which Religious Zionism is helping to craft and Shas needs quickly, in order to protect desired pieces of legislation from High Court of Justice oversight.

“We are in favor of dialogue and we are in favor of examining and hearing different directions and ideas, but we will not be prepared to grant a veto right on the continuation of the legislative process,” Smotrich told his faction, a sentiment that Deri echoed.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads his Religious Zionism faction’s meeting at the Knesset, February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We are open to discussion,” Deri said at the start of Shas’s faction meeting, “But you can’t use discussion to stop a process you want to stop.”

Justice Minister Yariv Levin has brushed off all attempts to slow the brisk pace of the legislative push he is leading, including a Sunday request from President Isaac Herzog to “stop the whole process for a moment, take a deep breath, allow dialogue to take place, because there is a huge majority of the nation that wants dialogue.”

Netanyahu, who is barred from personally dealing with the shakeup plans since they could impact his ongoing corruption trial, reportedly emphasized Monday that Levin is the address for Herzog’s judicial reform concerns, while speaking to Likud party lawmakers during a closed part of the faction meeting.

“I referred [Herzog] to Justice Minister Yariv Levin,” Netanyahu said, according to several Hebrew media outlets. “[Levin] is the one who envisioned it, he is the one who prepared it and he is the one who, together with the chairman of the Constitution Committee in the Knesset, is passing this reform.”

Last week, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara sent a sternly-worded letter to distance Netanyahu from the reform process, citing the conflict of interest matter.

In January, Baharav-Miara filed an opinion with the High Court stating that a conflict of interest agreement drawn up by her predecessor Avichai Mandelblit in 2020 for Netanyahu was still in effect.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During his remarks, Gantz also spelled out his conditions for dialogue on the government’s judicial overhaul plans, despite his offers to negotiate repeatedly being rebuffed by Netanyahu’s government.

Gantz said that the current rapid legislative process must be paused, that discussion should include “promoting comprehensive legislation and Basic Law legislation, with an emphasis on assistance to citizens,” and that the process include a pledge to “oppose the politicization of the choice of gatekeepers and judges.”

“There can’t be a situation in which one committee is fomenting a coup, while alongside it there is a ‘cosmetic committee’ holding idle discussions in order to silence the protests,” Gantz added.

Discussing a version of a key judicial reform bill drafted by its chair, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee steamed ahead with its daily debates on Monday, despite interruption from student protesters who, chanting “Democracy!” burst into the committee to temporarily disrupt discussion.

Gantz, who has previously suggested creating a cross-Knesset working group to shape judicial reform, is alone within the opposition in making compromise offers. While Yisrael Beytenu and Labor party leaders completely reject talks, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has requested that Herzog form an impartial panel on the matter.

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 16, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“I see what Minister Levin is planning, thus there’s no point for discussion,” Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman told reporters at the outset of his faction meeting on Monday.

Addressing the Knesset in honor of the parliament’s 74th anniversary, Lapid warned that the proposals would tear Israeli society in two.

“The point of no return for Israeli society is only a few weeks away from us. If you pass this legislation, there will be no way to fix it. There is no going back. This will break the back and core of Israeli society,” Lapid said.

“The flames were lit in this house, but the fire extinguishers are also in this house. As long as there is a chance to stop the legislation… we will continue to fight. But if it passes — it will divide this nation in two,” he said.

As presented by Levin, the coalition’s proposals would severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

Netanyahu, Levin and supporters of the plan it as a necessary rebalance of power that will strengthen Israel’s democracy by increasing the power of elected representatives to carry out their policies. Opposition politicians, the attorney general, the Supreme Court president and others have assailed the effort as destructive to Israel’s democratic institutions and harmful to civil liberties.

As protests continue to balloon against the reforms, a minority of voices have called for political violence and have been condemned across the political spectrum. One, a retired fighter pilot, recanted statements justifying Netanyahu’s assassination and apologized.

“There is a direct line that connects the irresponsible conduct of Yair Lapid and the opposition and the serious statements we heard last week both from attorney [David] Hodak who called to use ‘live fire’ and from Ze’ev Raz,” the former pilot, said Smotrich.

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri at a party meeting, in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 30, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

“Those who do not know how to maintain the boundaries of the protest in a legitimate and democratic struggle and cross them, ultimately cause the fact that more and more people, and not only from the fringes of the camp, come and support serious incitement and explicit calls for murder. It all starts from the top,” Smotrich added.

“Democracy is majority control, not control by rifle,” the premier said from the Knesset podium later Monday, denouncing calls for political murder as crossing a “glaring red line.”

Deri added his own call to “uproot” these phenomena.

“Everyone who makes such a call should know he’s an outcast from society,” he said.

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