Hours before Knesset votes, Edelstein questions coalition’s judicial overhaul push

Recordings from Likud faction meeting reveal worried party members, demands that Netanyahu intervene personally, though no outright opposition to contentious laws

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein leads a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on February 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MK Yuli Edelstein leads a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on February 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hours before he stayed away from Knesset votes on one bill to prevent the High Court of Justice from having the power to suspend a prime minister from office, and another to drastically restrict the court’s ability to block problematic government legislation, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein criticized the coalition over its relentless push to radically overhaul the judiciary, amid discord in the ruling party over its handling of the process and its fallout.

Edelstein was one of several Likud MKs who raised questions at a faction meeting on Monday about the handling of the overhaul legislation, though neither he nor any other party MKs expressed absolute opposition to the legislation.

The coalition is moving at breakneck speed to pass legislation that would severely restrict the powers of the High Court of Justice, allow the government to override court decisions with the barest majority, and put the selection process for justices in the hands of politicians. The bills have drawn fierce opposition from across Israel, sparking mass public protests and dire warnings from economists, legal professionals, academics and security officials.

During the Likud faction meeting led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Edelstein slammed the coalition for responding to the growing protests against the overhaul by announcing that the legislative push “won’t be frozen even for a minute,” according to recordings from the closed meeting released by Hebrew media.

Edelstein said the dismissive response was “helping the other side” and “gives the best excuse to the other side” to not enter negotiations. The opposition has demanded the government pause its legislative push during negotiations, which the coalition has refused to do, putting the two sides at a stalemate as the legislation moves forward.

Edelstein also said it was “easy” to dismiss opponents of the overhaul by saying “they are all on the left.”

He asked fellow Likud members whether “the direction we’re going in will guarantee that this will be the reform for years to come,” apparently suggesting the maximalist bills passed without negotiations could be overturned in the future. A veteran Likud MK who has been largely sidelined by Netanyahu after he challenged the prime minister’s leadership of the party, Edelstein also reportedly asked that the Likud faction hold its own debate on the legislation before it is brought for its final readings.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev, a Netanyahu loyalist, said that the coalition “must not blink and must continue with the reform as it is, continue with the legislation as it is,” despite the widespread opposition and urgent calls by President Isaac Herzog for compromise.

Other Likud members at the meeting expressed general concern with the party’s conduct even amid support for the radical, sweeping changes planned for the judiciary, as well as a call to restrain the Otzma Yehudit party’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who oversees police and whose clashes with the force over the protests and with the attorney general have made headlines in the past week.

Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud meeting at the Knesset March 13, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

A number of Likud lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with the coalition’s public handling of the judicial overhaul and warned that the right-wing party may lose voters’ support over the issue, amid public perception that opponents were “winning” the narrative.

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar, a senior Likud MK, said the party was not seizing the public conversation and was risking its stability.

“They beat us because they fight as a team, they are organized, they fight on the field. And what do we do? We go with the events and hope for the best,” Zohar told party members. If this continues, he warned, “we will lose the leadership.”

This won’t be “because the reform is not good, but because we let them win. We let the ball pass between our legs and shoot straight into the goal. We do nothing to win,” he said, using a soccer analogy.

“Those who think that only one or two of us will lose if we lose here, are wrong. We will all lose, and return to… the opposition,” Zohar said.

Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar at his office in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu responded that there was “no chance that this government will be dissolved.”

The 64-seat coalition made up of right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox parties “is an iron wall. I wouldn’t want to get false hopes that this government is going to collapse. It is strong,” Netanyahu said.

MK Danny Danon appealed to Netanyahu to cancel the conflict of interest agreement he signed in 2020 that prevents him from directly dealing with the government’s overhaul since it could affect the outcome of his ongoing corruption trial. A recent request by Netanyahu’s office to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to narrow the scope of the deal so he could speak publicly about the issue was rebuffed.

“You’re the prime minister,” Danon said. “You’re not watching from the sidelines. The people gave Likud a clear mandate to lead the country.”

“It can’t be that officials will not allow you to deal with the main issue the government is dealing with, and to save our country from disaster. I call on you to announce that the conflict of interest agreement you signed is null and void, and to immediately start working on finding a solution to the crisis,” Danon told Netanyahu.

Likud MK Eli Dellal also asked Netanyahu to intervene: “We are in a sensitive period, where we are [under scrutiny] for any nonsense.”

“Even right-wing people who have not been very familiar with the reform are alarmed by what they hear,” warned Dellal.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the entrance to the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv ahead of anti-government demonstrations, March 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

He also said Ben Gvir’s recent confrontations with the attorney general and police officers were worrying.

Ben Gvir came under fire last week for announcing the decision to remove Tel Aviv District Police Commander Amichai Eshed from his position, hours after Ben Gvir reportedly raged at the police force for its restrained conduct at large anti-government demonstrations in Tel Aviv and near Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday.

Ben Gvir insisted the decision was made at the recommendation of Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, who later said the transfer of Eshed to another position was part of a police command reshuffle but that the timing had been decided by Ben Gvir.

Baharav-Miara blocked Ben Gvir’s move a day later, questioning the legality of a decision that was widely seen as politically motivated.

The far-right Otzma Yehudit leader has previously argued for a crackdown on protests, and has since been engaged in a public tiff with the attorney general over his representation in legal proceedings against him.

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