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In first Knesset speech, Gantz warns of ‘threat to democratic system’

Blue and White leader and potential opposition head says his party will stand in the face of efforts to erode state institutions and the rule of law

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz speaks at the Knesset on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz speaks at the Knesset on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In his maiden speech to the Knesset on Monday, Blue and White party leader and prospective opposition leader Benny Gantz warned of a growing danger to Israeli democracy under the current government, and vowed to stand as a bulwark against attempts to erode state institutions and the rule of law.

“I come today to fight against the new threat we face: a threat to the integrity of the democratic system and the country’s judicial and law-enforcement institutions,” he said.

He accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of seeking to bury his criminal cases through “political deals,” proving that “the rule of law does not at all interest the head of the current government and that which is taking shape.”

Gantz said he was the representative of over a million Israelis who voted for internal peace, external peace and unity, comradeship, and [a return to] courteousness.”

His party’s voters, he said, “feel that their government is trying to silence them and sees them as a tiresome nuisance.

“Quietly, every day, they and we lose another small piece of the Israel we knew and grew up on, walk another step away from the model society we wished to be, the model society we should be,” he said.

He accused Netanyahu of placing his continued hold on power “above all else.”

But he said Israel “deserves humble and non-condescending leadership that is devoted wholly to the needs of the country, that serves all it citizens and not its personal needs.”

He vowed that Blue and White would remind the country “that the opposition is not a downtrodden minority, but an alternative to the government.”

Paraphrasing a passage from the Book of Psalms, he said the party would in the coming years “plow the public and political fields…sow even when its difficult, even with tears at times, but we will not give up and we will remember that a day will come, and it is not far off, when we will reap with songs of joy.”

Earlier in the day, Gantz slammed Netanyahu’s reported plans to promote a bill that would allow the government to overrule the High Court of Justice on administrative matters.

If passed, the bill could safeguard the prime minister’s immunity from prosecution by permitting the annulment of any judicial decision that could rescind it.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz speaks at the Knesset on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The proposed clause would effectively allow the Knesset to ignore the court’s administrative rulings, and also permit it to resubmit laws that have been struck down by the court in the past, Haaretz reported earlier Monday.

It would thus prevent the court from overruling both Knesset legislation and government decisions, and elevate the latter above those of the judiciary.

Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may use his newfound political strength in the wake of the April 9 elections to advance legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister, or seek to use existing immunity provisions for the same purpose.

“Such cheapening of the rule of law crosses a red line and we will not let this pass,” Gantz said. “It is unacceptable for deals to be created that aim to harm the rule of law and undermine the pillars of democracy for the benefit of a prime minister who has three pending indictments against him.”

Blue and White’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, told a press conference earlier Monday that “people have to take to the streets before our democracy is destroyed.”

Blue and White co-chairman Yair Lapid delivers a statement to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Lapid mocked the prime minister’s Likud party, saying it has “turned into a ‘get out of jail’ party for Netanyahu,” and criticized the latest efforts as an attempt to “turn the State of Israel into Turkey,” alluding to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s law changes that have granted him the option to remain leader for decades.

Lapid also said that based on the proposal, as well as Netanyahu’s efforts to delay a pre-indictment hearing against him in three corruption cases, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit should file charges immediately.

“The attorney general should cancel Netanyahu’s hearing. He doesn’t deserve one. No one owes him a hearing. There is no other suspect in the country that would act like that and still get one,” Lapid charged. “If these laws pass, Israel won’t be the same country. Ask yourselves, in which countries does the ruler have immunity from the law? There’s no such thing in a democracy.”

Hebrew-language media noted that the two co-leaders gave their statements separately, raising questions on whether their alliance was faltering. Blue and White is an alliance between Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Gantz’s Israel Resilience parties.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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