Lapid: Justice overhaul ‘tearing Israel apart’; PM: Opposition leading us to anarchy

Opposition chief urges MKs from Netanyahu’s Likud party not to back bill, while Gantz bashes coalition for pushing controversial changes while Israel faces ‘security powder keg’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaks at a protest against the judicial overhaul, February 13, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaks at a protest against the judicial overhaul, February 13, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Speaking as tens of thousands of Israelis rallied at the Knesset against the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system, opposition leader Yair Lapid warned Monday that the judiciary-weakening legislation “threatens to destroy the country at breakneck speed.”

Lapid spoke in a joint press conference with other opposition leaders, as some 90,000 people demonstrated against the planned shakeup outside the Knesset in Jerusalem.

“What the government wants to bring to the Knesset is not a first reading” of the bill, “but rather a tearing apart of the people of Israel, of Israeli democracy, of coexistence,” Lapid said.

“If this legislation passes, the democratic chapter in the life of the state will end,” he added.

Responding to the mass protests and opposition uproar, Netanyahu accused opposition heads of “purposely taking the country toward anarchy.”

In a short video, the premier criticized the conduct of a pair of Yesh Atid lawmakers who hopped on top of a table and charged toward Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman, as the right-wing majority on the panel managed to advance key legislative components of the judicial overhaul. Netanyahu blasted Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai for “expressly inciting violence” after the latter told Channel 13 that “countries do not come back from being dictatorships other than through bloodshed.” The prime minister then blasted some participants at “the left-wing protest” whom he alleged called him a traitor.

“Get a grip. Show some responsibility and leadership,” Netanyahu told opposition leaders, adding: “Most citizens of Israel don’t want anarchy. They want discourse that is focused, and, in the end, they want unity.”

The latter part could be understood as a nod to Herzog’s call yesterday for dialogue on a potential compromise on the government’s deeply controversial judicial overhaul plan.

Likud later filed a complaint against Huldai with police, accusing him of incitement.

Earlier Monday, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee approved for a first plenum reading a bill to cement political control over judicial appointments, as well as to block Supreme Court review of quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. Yesh Atid sources said the coalition had informed the party that the bill would not come up for a floor reading until Wednesday or next Monday.

Highlighting the potential security and economic consequences raised by critics of the shakeup — but dismissed by its supporters — Lapid added: “If this legislation passes, the Israeli economy will be fatally damaged, the most successful companies will get out of here, the defense establishment will be harmed, IDF soldiers will be put at legal risk, the close alliance with the United States will end.”

The former prime minister, who in December lost his seat to Benjamin Netanyahu, was joined in highlighting the security threat by National Unity party leader Benny Gantz.

National Unity party head Benny Gantz speaks a joint press conference of opposition party leaders at the Knesset on February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Former defense minister Gantz said Israel was “on a security powder keg” but the coalition “is ‘concentrating efforts’ on dividing the people and destroying democracy.”

Gantz, who has long called for cross-Knesset participation instead of unilateral judicial reform, said the government’s plan to increase political power over the judiciary harms Israel’s ability to fight terror.

“In order to defeat terrorism, two things must be done: immediately stop the predatory legislation… and create order in the defense establishment,” Gantz said, pointing to confusion over the division of authorities in the Defense Ministry in the new government, as well as “generator of chaos” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

Addressing comments to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Gantz said that “the experiment failed, and if it continues, it can set the area on fire.” He urged the premier to fire Ben Gvir and replace him with “an experienced and responsible figure, such as former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter,” currently Likud’s agriculture minister.

Lapid has previously said he hopes to woo Likud lawmakers who are uncomfortable with the direction of the government’s controversial plan, and named seven Likud MKs in an attempt to pressure them to rebel, telling them they “can’t sign onto” the legislation.

He directed his comments at former security officials Dichter and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, former Soviet dissident MK Yuli Edelstein, and senior Likud lawmakers who have pushed back against Netanyahu — Israel Katz, former UN ambassador Danny Danon, and David Bitan.

“You know that something crooked and terrible is happening here and you are being asked to sign onto it. You can’t sign onto it,” said the opposition leader.

Later on Monday, Likud rabble-rouser David Amsalem declared that the coalition would pass its judicial overhaul regardless of the opposition’s fierce objections.

Amsalem, who is slated to become a junior minister in the Justice Ministry, said that the government would fight until the end to pass its proposals, blasting the “leftist” opposition as a group of “thugs and liars” in a speech before the Knesset plenum.

Responding to those who have warned that the overhaul will lead to lawlessness, Amsalem said that those who break the law will be thrown in jail.

The Likud MK claimed that the opponents of the government’s plans represent the Israeli elite who “are ready to give us titles and maybe a car but will not allow us to actually govern.”

Speaking alongside Lapid and Gantz at their press conference, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman charged that the coalition’s ongoing judicial reform bid is part of a century-long debate between Zionism and ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman speaks at a joint press conference with opposition party leaders at the Knesset on February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

A vocal critic of the Haredi leadership’s grip on Jewish life and state funding while the community largely eschews military service and is underrepresented in the workforce, Liberman said that the ongoing judicial reform fight was part of a larger battle over sharing the civic burden.

The Yisrael Beytenu leader pointed to the expected High Court override clause, which, coupled with the coalition’s stated intention to pass a new Basic Law: Torah Study, will enshrine military exemptions for full-time yeshiva study — an issue over which Liberman previously brought down a government.

Liberman said enabling the coalition and its Haredi partners to run roughshod over military conscription “is a hard blow to equality in sharing the [security] burden,” and “this country is not able to carry it.”

“If we can’t resolve this issue, we can’t survive – so this is a life or death fight,” he added.

In a similar vein, Gantz attacked Netanyahu for prioritizing passing the override clause, saying that, “at this time, saving lives from bloodthirsty and brainwashed terrorists and uniting the entire Israeli public supersedes the political whims of repealing the conscription law or appointing judges to hear the appeal at your trial.”

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

Meanwhile, Labor party leader Merav Michaeli said proposals for negotiations with the coalition to change the contours of its judicial overhaul plan were “a trap.”

She accused the coalition of “trying to cause us to silence the thousands” who are protesting the reform plan, “by using the word ‘negotiation’” as a false enticement.

On Sunday night, President Isaac Herzog called for discussion and negotiation between the coalition and the opposition. Justice Minister Yariv Levin has rebuffed requests to halt the legislative blitz during such talks.

Other opposition members, including Gantz and Lapid, have said they would support meaningful negotiation, but with a legislative pause as a precondition.

“There’s an alternative to the trap they’re setting for us… we’ll increase protests,” Michaeli said, adding that “we won’t let them take our democracy.”

Though he refrained from joining the press conference, Islamist Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas expressed his opposition to the government’s judicial reform plan.

“We are all united against the government’s intentions and actions to collapse the rule of law and justice, and to control the judicial system,” Abbas said in a statement distributed by Ra’am.

“We will not lend a hand to the promotion of this initiative, and we will act wisely to allow the success of the protest against the initiative to control the judicial system. The harm affects all the citizens of the country, especially the Arab citizens,” Abbas added.

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