Gantz: Overhaul is 'the prelude to a dictatorship'

Herzog hosts Rothman, Lapid, Gantz separately in bid for judicial overhaul compromise

Head of the Knesset committee pushing through legislation cancels session in order to meet with president, but says he’s unwilling to back down on core parts of radical shakeup

From L-R President Isaac Herzog, MK Simcha Rothman, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, National Unity leader Benny Gantz (Flash 90)
From L-R President Isaac Herzog, MK Simcha Rothman, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, National Unity leader Benny Gantz (Flash 90)

Coalition and opposition leaders met separately with President Isaac Herzog on Tuesday to discuss the president’s urgent call for compromise on the government’s fraught push to overhaul the judiciary, as coalition lawmakers said they were willing to discuss some parts of the proposal but unwilling to fold on others.

The head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Simcha Rothman, canceled a planned committee session in order to meet with Herzog. In recent days, Rothman has steamrolled the early parts of the judicial overhaul proposal through the committee, refusing to pause the effort amid attempts to find a compromise. Some of the relevant legislation is expected to come up for a first vote in the Knesset plenum next week.

Herzog also met with opposition chief Yair Lapid, as well as with the leader of the centrist National Unity party, Benny Gantz. The meetings all took place at the president’s official residence in Jerusalem.

Following each of the three meetings, the president’s office released an identical statement saying that he and the lawmakers had “discussed the president’s plan as presented in his address to the nation.”

“The president reiterated his call for dialogue and the pursuit of as broad agreements as possible for the good of the State of Israel and its citizens,” the president’s office repeated in each statement.

Herzog on Sunday warned of potential “societal and constitutional collapse” due to the judicial overhaul and pleaded for compromise. He called on Rothman in particular to pause the legislation’s progress through his committee, which the Religious Zionism MK quickly rejected.

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

Lapid said he told the president there were basic matters on which the opposition would not compromise, and demanded the coalition halt the progress of the legislation as a condition for holding negotiations, saying it was “important to reach a wide agreement to prevent a fissure in the nation.”

“I presented the president with the basic lines that we will not compromise on,” Lapid said.

Rothman said on Monday that there were some issues he was willing to discuss, but that he would not give up his demand that politicians select the majority of Supreme Court judges or that a Knesset majority be able to overrule court decisions. Both proposals are central to the coalition’s plans. Critics say such plans will upend democratic norms and threaten civil liberties.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the head of Rothman’s far-right Religious Zionism party, also said Monday that “there are core elements in the reforms that will be hard for us to compromise on, and there are parts that we can agree to give up.”

Rothman and Smotrich held a live Facebook video session together to address concerns about the legal plans. Several thousand people tuned into the broadcast, leaving close to 50,000 comments.

Finance Minister and head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting in the Jewish settlement of Givat Harel, in the West Bank, February 14, 2023. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Rothman claimed the judicial plans would align Israel with other democratic nations and said the opposition was “unwilling to talk.”

He said that if supporters of the judicial reform had been protesting instead, Monday’s mass rally in Jerusalem would have looked like “a walk in the park.” A survey earlier this week suggested that the judicial reforms are unpopular with the public.

Smotrich offered a conciliatory message to the protesters and sought to assuage fears the legislation will harm civil liberties, but attacked the protest movement’s leaders.

“I won’t live in a country that doesn’t have a strong enough judicial system to protect human rights and property. That’s not where we want to go,” Smotrich said. “I have love for the majority of the protesters. I hear their pain, and the last thing I want is for them to have the feeling that we’re trampling them and not listening.”

“We want to talk, but we won’t give in to threats,” he said, adding that he rejected “irresponsible” protest leaders including Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, former IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon, former prime minister Ehud Olmert and left-wing politician Yair Golan.

Israelis wave flags during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023 (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

At the protest on Monday, Olmert said that it was “good to see 100,000 people here, but that’s not what will lead to the real struggle. The real struggle will break out of these boundaries and get into real war. We’re facing a real war.”

The former prime minister added that “what is needed is to go onto the next stage, the stage of war, and war is not carried out with speeches, war is carried out face to face.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party filed a police complaint against Olmert for incitement, with the premier demanding that the opposition “condemn this incitement and stop deliberately bringing the country down into anarchy.”

Ahead of his meeting with Herzog, National Unity’s Gantz warned that the government’s efforts amount to a coup.

“The citizenry understands that what’s happening here is regime change. This isn’t judicial reform,” Gantz told Channel 12. “It’s not happening next week, it’s happening tomorrow.”

“We cannot allow under any circumstances a politicization of the justice system,” Gantz said.

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)

He claimed that the government’s actions “are only the first stage.” Once the courts are hobbled, he said, “they’ll do whatever they want.”

“This is the prelude to a dictatorship… to the tyranny of the majority,” Gantz said. “I urge Netanyahu to take responsibility. Stop this oncoming train. Then it will be possible to make progress” toward consensus.

The legal overhaul, advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Netanyahu, would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 MKs.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms would undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended. Netanyahu and other coalition members have dismissed the criticism.

In addition to massive protests and fierce pushback from the opposition, finance leaders and businesses have repeatedly warned that the plan will harm the economy by stoking uncertainty and scaring off investors. Several major startups have already decided to pull assets from Israel.

Leading bankers on Tuesday reportedly told Smotrich that they were already seeing the effects of the turmoil as funds were pulled out of the country at a rate 10 times higher than usual.

Smotrich reportedly brushed off their concerns, telling them: “Your job is to calm the discourse.”

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