PM says proposed judicial override clause may go too far

On Berlin visit, Netanyahu denies he’s working to curtail independence of judiciary

German chancellor says he’s watching overhaul debate ‘with great concern,’ urges weighing Herzog plan; PM insists Israel ‘will remain a liberal democracy’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a joint press conference following talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on March 16, 2023. (Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a joint press conference following talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on March 16, 2023. (Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

BERLIN — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel is and “will remain a liberal democracy,” after he rejected a judicial reform framework proposed by President Isaac Herzog a night earlier.

Standing alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — who urged the prime minister to consider a compromise deal on the plan to overhaul the judiciary and said Berlin was watching the debate unfold “with great concern” — Netanyahu portrayed himself as a champion of democracy.

“I’ve helped liberalize the Israeli system. Liberalize its economy,” he said. “Liberalize its way of life. Advance the rights of LGBTs.”

“The image that is foisted as though we are trying to bring a judicial reform to curtail the independence of the judiciary is not true,” Netanyahu insisted, saying that the judicial branch has become too powerful in Israel.

“We will have the same balance that exists in any other democracy” after the plan is implemented, Netanyahu argued. He hit back against those depicting him as a “potentate who’s abolishing democracy and all this nonsense,” calling such charges “absurd” and “preposterous.”

Scholz, meanwhile, said Germany has been closely monitoring the ongoing debate, and that “as Israel’s friend, we hope that the last word has not been spoken” on Herzog’s alternate proposal.

Netanyahu’s visit, coinciding with a day of protests in Israel, was also marked by demonstrations in Berlin against his coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation.

On Wednesday evening, Herzog unveiled his “People’s Framework” proposal, urging both sides of the debate “not to destroy the country” in a power struggle over the judiciary, but rather seize the opportunity for “a formative constitutional moment.”

People protest in front of the Brandenburg Gate at a demonstration against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is on a visit in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Steffi Loos)

Shortly after Herzog published his offer, and before departing for Berlin, Netanyahu rejected it, saying that the proposal would only “perpetuate the existing situation” without bringing “the necessary balance between the branches of government in Israel.”

In Berlin, Netanyahu and Scholz carried out a polite but tense debate about the government’s planned overhaul in front of the cameras after a working meeting that went well into overtime.

Spotted at the Berlin ???????? rally to #DefendIsraeliDemocracy

Posted by ‎נאבקים על הדמוקרטיה בבית Defend Israeli Democracy‎ on Thursday, March 16, 2023

“Democracy is not [only] majority rule, but it’s also the security of those who are minorities and who might always remain minorities,” cautioned Scholz, in response to a question.

“What is democracy? The balance between the will of the majority and the rights of the individual,” countered Netanyahu, saying there must be the proper balance between branches of government for that to happen. He argued that individual rights will be better protected after the changes, as will Israel’s economy.

Netanyahu said that he would return to Israel, consult his advisers, and decide how to move forward with the judicial overhaul legislation, likely without talks with the opposition.

“Independence of the judiciary is a prime asset,” said Scholz in his prepared remarks. “We are monitoring this debate very closely,” he added, urging a broad consensus.

In response to a question from The Times of Israel, Netanyahu called for the opposition to sit down and talk in order to reach as broad a consensus as possible for judicial reform.

He charged that opposition leaders have not shown a desire for compromise, suggesting their goal is chaos and the collapse of the government instead of a real solution.

People protest at a demonstration at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin against the judicial reform of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is on a visit in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Steffi Loos)

He also said he was aware that the proposed override clause must be done carefully, or else it could create what he describes as a new imbalance. “If we do that, it’s just as bad.”

The leaders also discussed Iran, with Scholz saying Tehran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, and therefore “a diplomatic solution is our top priority.”

In his own remarks, Netanyahu said that “Israel will do what Israel needs to do” to defend itself against Iranian designs. He added that Iran had been the main topic of his conversation with Scholz, warning that “those who perpetrate terrorist attacks against Israel and those who send them will pay a heavy price.”

Scholz also expressed concern over rising violence in the West Bank, saying it must be dealt with by the army, “not with unbridled vigilante justice,” a likely reference to a violent settler rampage in Huwara last month.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin on March 16, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Netanyahu also met Thursday afternoon with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier — who expressed concern last week over the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plans, and said he was in “constant contact with my friend and colleague Isaac Herzog.” Details of their conversation were not immediately available.

The prime minister was slated to return home to Israel Thursday evening, cutting his trip short even before he left amid ongoing talks on a potential compromise, as well as a security incident near the Lebanon border.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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