Smotrich: Next step is changing judge selection panel

Lapid: US is pulling away, national tragedy coming; Gantz to PM: It’s not too late

Opposition leaders warn that the coalition’s determination to overhaul the judiciary is damaging diplomacy while tearing the country apart

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

Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 17, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 17, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid blamed Israel’s hardline government for driving a wedge between the country and the United States, saying on Monday that Israel was no longer the United States’ closest ally.

Speaking at the outset of his Yesh Atid party’s Knesset faction meeting, Lapid said concerns raised by the coalition’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary had spilled over into a multi-front crisis, among which the bilateral relationship is one of many casualties.

“The Israeli government is leading us into this crisis, making the biggest and most dramatic changes to the regime in our history,” he charged.

On Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog will visit Washington, DC, to address a joint session of the American Congress, in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary. Netanyahu has yet to be invited to the White House, but Biden reportedly will call him on Monday to again caution against his government’s march toward reducing judicial checks on political power.

Rolling back efforts by the past government to repair relations with the United States’ democratic party, Netanyahu’s reentry into the premiership on the back of a hardline coalition has ushered in a new low point in Israel’s relations with the global superpower. American officials have repeatedly expressed their concern with the coalition’s judicial overhaul and have refused to meet with senior far-right Israeli ministers. Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden said “extremists” serve in Netanyahu’s cabinet.

Lapid, a former political partner who has since become one of Netanyahu’s most prominent critics, said that the government’s current direction “is leading us to national disaster, and [the government] refuses to recognize it.”

The Attorney General’s Office and conservative judicial experts expressed deep concerns about the coalition’s bill to end judicial review of the “reasonableness” of its own administrative decisions, but the coalition has continued to push the legislation forward. In part, it has sought to escape judicial pushback on appointments it has makes, as well as on its ongoing delay in convening the judicial appointments panel whose makeup it first planned to change. Lapid said that the coalition’s insistence on improving its circumstances through changing the law is anti-democratic.

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, June 30, 2023, in Washington. (AP/ Evan Vucci)

“The difference between democracy and dictatorship is not complicated. In a dictatorship, the government can do whatever it wants. In a democracy it cannot. In a democratic country, the government has to take the law into account, it has to take the facts into account,” said Lapid. “The Israeli government doesn’t want to listen to the facts, so it’s changing the law.”

Fellow opposition party head MK Benny Gantz, who also formerly partnered with Netanyahu, similarly expressed concerns about removing checks on authority, saying that unfettered power can be misused.

“How do you live in peace with the removal of checks on the government, which is essentially an opening for corruption? If not in this government, then in the one after it. The day will come when a government will take advantage of this unlimited power which you seek to bestow upon it,” Gantz said, speaking ahead of his National Unity party’s Knesset faction meeting.

Shortly afterward, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich mocked opposition members for calling actions they do not agree with undemocratic, asserting instead that democracy means electing a government and letting it carry out its policies.

Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party is at the fore of speeding the coalition’s “reasonableness” test bill, which is on schedule to go for its final floor votes next Sunday, in a special session that the coalition is calling for the purpose.

The far-right party chief said that Netanyahu is showing “determination as I have never seen” to pass the bill before the legislative summer session closes on July 30, brushing off reports that the prime minister feels pressure to soften the bill’s language before finalizing it in the plenum.

Smotrich also reaffirmed on Monday that the broader coalition heads agreed that their “next legislative step should be to change the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee” — the panel responsible for tapping the country’s judges.

The government was on the verge of approving such a change in March and could finalize that plan within a short time, though Netanyahu has since said that it will seek a different change than that previously planned, and ostensibly a less divisive one.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a Knesset faction meeting of his far-right Religious Zionism party, July 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Despite quitting judicial reform negotiations in June over alleged coalition bad faith, Lapid said that “it’s not too late” to return to dialogue, and called on the coalition to freeze its “reasonableness” bill, currently the only part of the package on the Knesset’s summer session legislative agenda.

“We can still together go through a collaborative, informed process with professionals and reach a compromise that will fix the system instead of destroying it to its core,” the Yesh Atid leader said.

Gantz echoed the sentiment, calling on Netanyahu to freeze the controversial bill.

“A leader must make tough decisions – and it’s time to make them. Netanyahu, don’t tear the people apart,” the former defense minister said.

Netanyahu was hospitalized for dehydration on Saturday evening and released on Sunday with a heart monitoring device. Playing on the premier’s health woes, Gantz said that Netanyahu “has closed off [his] heart to the people of Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg, Pool)

With a complex security situation only exacerbated by a growing number of reservists saying they will not show up for duty as part of the anti-overhaul protests, Gantz said: “The time has come to enter a kind of intensive care, stop the bleeding, and first of all – open our hearts to public sentiments and the strategic needs of the state.”

The former defense minister also addressed reservists head-on, urging them to continue to serve and not protest through the Israel Defense Forces.

“I call on you, despite the immense difficulty and fear: continue the mission and the struggle for this country, and continue to fight for it, against our enemies,” he said.

Early on Monday, Netanyahu said that military service refusers undermine national security.

“This is true in any democracy, but in our democracy, incitement to insubordination and insubordination directly endanger the security of all Israeli citizens,” he said from the Prime Minister’s Office, while opening the cabinet meeting. “It erodes deterrence against our enemies… and undermines discipline in the military.”

“There can’t be a group within the army that threatens the elected government, ‘If you don’t do as we desire, we’ll flip the switch on [Israel’s] security,’” he added.

Netanyahu is said to be increasingly concerned about Israel’s operational readiness, should a significant number of military reservists refuse to serve. His Likud party says it appreciated Gantz and other former military chiefs of staff speaking out against refusing to serve.

“We appreciate the positions held by [Benny] Gantz and [Gadi] Eisenkot and most of all, [Gabi] Ashkenazi — three former military chiefs of staff — against the refusal to serve that threatens the safety of all Israeli citizens,” the party said in a statement.

Gantz and Eisenkot are members of the opposition’s National Unity party, while fellow former Israel Defense Forces’ head Ashkenazi formerly served as a lawmaker under Gantz, and as foreign minister.

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