Gantz to PM: Talk now before we face civil war; Herzog: Israel may fall into abyss

National Unity leader calls on Netanyahu to enter into negotiations on overhaul immediately; the premier ostensibly agrees, but sides continue to be divided on terms

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After demonstrations against the government in Tel Aviv Wednesday descended into violence, the opposition’s National Unity party leader Benny Gantz urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to immediately meet with him over the government’s plans to drastically overhaul the judiciary, warning that the country was heading to a civil war.

“When will we stop? When blood is spilled?” Gantz asked while at a press conference he called in the Knesset. “A civil war is coming and the coalition is running toward it with its eyes wide shut.”

“This is a real emergency,” warned Gantz, who attacked the coalition for what he said was the “destruction” of democracy. “The house that is intended to serve the entire people, is now tearing it apart.”

Meanwhile, President Isaac Herzog warned that the country “could fall into a terrible abyss” and said he would do everything to prevent Israel “reaching the point of no return; I will not let this historical disaster happen.”

Herzog praised the demonstrators as patriots concerned for the future of Israel, and said he shared their worries. “I see the protests, the anxiety and the fear that comes from the depths of your hearts — a fear that I also expressed regarding the legislation as it is being presented now. I feel very well the depth of pain, and the depth of concern for the fate of the country,” Herzog said.

Netanyahu’s Likud party said he and Gantz had spoken earlier and that the prime minister told Gantz, “My door is open, come now.”

However, the sides remained in disagreement as to the conditions for talks. Herzog and the opposition have said the coalition’s legislative blitz should be paused to allow negotiations to be held in good faith, while the coalition had rejected this, depicting the demand as a stalling tactic, and is continuing to advance the various bills.

Gantz confirmed that he had spoken with Netanyahu and also to Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana and called on them to “immediately shut the Knesset — to stop all discussion [on the legislation] and come to the President’s Residence tonight” for talks.

The leader of the opposition’s Labor party MK Merav Michali criticized Gantz for believing that Netanyahu was willing to compromise, and warned him that any talks would be a trap.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (seated) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Dozens of people were arrested Wednesday, mostly in Tel Aviv, as rallies were held across the country protesting the judicial plan that, among other powers, will give the government control over the panel that selects Supreme Court judges and largely prevent the court from striking down laws.

In Tel Aviv, where protestors blocked a major road junction, police for the first time deployed stun grenades, water cannons and mounted police to disperse the demonstrations. Eleven people required hospital treatment. The protests came as the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee approved for its first reading in the Knesset plenum a government-backed bill to radically restrict the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down legislation, amid opposition outrage directed at committee chair MK Simcha Rothman for his management of the process.

“Close the Knesset now and do not open it until we calm things down,” Gantz said, aiming his remarks at Netanyahu. “Stop everything and we will go from here to the President’s Residence.”

Herzog has offered his official residence as neutral ground for the government and opposition to meet for discussions to reach a compromise on the judicial plan. Herzog also offered his own framework for an agreement.

“I know that the chances of success in negotiations are not high, I know that the barriers are high and the gaps are large — but history will not forgive those who do not try to prevent civil war,” Gantz said. “We have nothing to lose by talking — we have a lot to lose if the situation continues to deteriorate.”

“Don’t be the one who enables the destruction,” Gantz urged Netanyahu.

Speaking of the unity among Israelis to overcome adversary throughout the decades since the state was established, Gantz said current events, and in particular Wednesday’s developments, “endanger what we have built here.”

Gantz gave his support to the protesters, calling them “the salt of the earth, they are the guardians of democracy and its servants.”

“I call on them, to continue to demonstrate and protest in accordance with the law,” he said.

Mounted police clash with people as they protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

At a speech he delivered during an Israeli Navy ceremony, Herzog spoke of the need for dialogue between the two sides, his belief that a solution can be found, and his concerns about what might happen if it is not.

“We could fall into a terrible abyss, or, on the other hand, we can reach a solution with a broad consensus,” Herzog said.

“I am anxious for our common destiny. Anxious for our country, whose very establishment was a miracle, and whose success is the fruit of all our labor.

“I believe with all my heart that it is possible to turn this moment of crisis into a defining constitutional moment — a moment in which our democracy, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the supremacy of the law, human rights, and the checks and balances between the authorities will be preserved for generations,” said Herzog.

“I believe that it is possible to turn the burning ground under our feet into a fertile soil ripe for agreements.”

Hebrew media reports have said that Likud sees Gantz as the opposition party leader most likely to reach some sort of compromise with the government, whereas Michaeli and opposition leader MK Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, are seen as not willing to budge. Netanyahu on Wednesday accused Lapid of deliberately shunning talks in order to sow anarchy through the protest movement, in the hope of bringing about fresh elections.

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