With seven days left before Israelis head to the polls, Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned on Tuesday that Israeli democracy will face a serious threat if his political rivals come to power and implement a wide-sweeping agenda of judicial reforms.
Addressing a conference hosted by the Movement for Quality Government in Tel Aviv, Lapid argued that “this time it is not a threat” that the “end of democracy” may be around the corner, but rather “the election promise” of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit party.
Netanyahu returned fire by accusing Lapid of a host of anti-democratic moves while Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich said that he respects democracy.
Smotrich recently published a broad judicial reform plan that would enable politicians to veto Supreme Court rulings on legislation, change the ways judges are selected, split the attorney general’s powers and eliminate the criminal charge of “fraud and breach of trust” — a charge that forms the base of three of Netanyahu’s four ongoing corruption trials.
The Likud party has said that canceling the charge will not retroactively apply to Netanyahu’s cases, though the legal ramifications for existing cases are not currently clear.
Although judicial reform has been one of the more concrete policy debates in advance of Israel’s fifth national election in 43 months, it has not moved the needle in a definitive direction, with polls predicting a potential ongoing stalemate between the current blocs headed by Netanyahu and Yesh Atid’s Lapid.
Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit has surged since Israelis last voted in March 2021, buoyed by the popularity of Smotrich’s far-right ally Itamar Ben Gvir and currently polling as the third largest party after November’s election.
While both Ben Gvir and Smotrich have tempered their at-times fiery language in recent months, Lapid said that their alliance’s platform remains extreme.
“This is the plan they published – to have a dark, racist and extremist country here, without any legal restrictions,” Lapid said. “Smotrich has already announced that he wants to be defense minister, Ben Gvir, the public security minister” responsible for police and internal security.
“Those who insist on not taking them seriously, bury their heads in the sand. They mean every word they say,” he added.
“If that happens, God forbid, I don’t know exactly what Israel will be, but it will no longer be the only democracy in the Middle East. It will no longer be a democracy at all,” he continued, in one of his most fiery speeches this election season.
Taking aim at Lapid, Netanyahu said that “Lapid behaves like a dictator in his own party,” which unlike Likud does not hold a primary, and panned Lapid’s Yesh Atid party for attacking the pro-right wing Channel 14 as well as for allying with the National Unity party, which recently put forward a policy platform that included warrantless searches on suspicion of major crimes.
“He went to the Arab public today and tried to incite them against me,” he added about Lapid’s trip to Nazareth.
Smotrich, in unrelated comments Tuesday in Beersheba’s Sderot Conference on Society and Education, said that he respects democracy, citing his reaction to Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal of its settlements and forces from the Gaza Strip.
“We have respected democracy throughout the years, and only a few years ago, we accepted it in the eviction in Gush Katif, even though we believed it was a bitter mistake,” he said.
Smotrich was arrested by the Shin Bet security service in 2005 on suspicion of organizing violent demonstrations against the Gaza disengagement, but was released without being charged.
Chief among the freedoms Lapid said will be in jeopardy should the far-right ascend to power this fall are women’s rights, LGBT rights, and a free and fair judiciary.
Predicting that the gendered glass ceiling will return, “harder than ever,” the prime minister said that should such an ideology take root, it could lead to women losing rights over their bodies, as well as to lower representation in positions of power.
LGBT communities, he said, could lose recognition and face trouble starting families.
And on the legal front, Lapid said that the judicial reform process outlined by Smotrich could lead to a process that ultimately can “cancel Netanyahu’s trial.”
In Beersheba, Smotrich reaffirmed his stance that a judicial overhaul is necessary to rebalance power between government and judges.
Smotrich said that “without significant treatment of the justice system and a change of the balance between the government and the justice system, we have no right to exist as a coalition.”
“The public will not forgive those who intentionally try to prevent us from making amendments to the justice system,” he added.