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Lapid warns new government will form a ‘halachic state’

Outgoing PM calls on Likud voters to speak out against efforts by religious parties to impose Jewish law; Gantz says he’d support an override clause requiring 2/3 of MKs

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

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks during his Yesh Atid party's faction meeting at the Knesset, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks during his Yesh Atid party's faction meeting at the Knesset, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Monday charged that the incoming government was forgetting that Israel is a Jewish state, not a “halachic state,” and called on Likud MKs to speak out against efforts to impose religious law on the country.

Speaking at his Yesh Atid party’s faction meeting, the prime minister pointed to policies proposed by the religious parties expected to be part of the Likud-headed coalition, saying that “the State of Israel is a Jewish state, not a halachic state.”

“Women will not be told where they are allowed and where they are not allowed to stand,” he declared.

Parties in the incoming coalition “will not rip this country apart into those who serve in the army and those who do not, those who work and those who do not,” he continued, highlighting United Torah Judaism’s requests for stipends for yeshiva student support greater than those received by Israeli soldiers, Religious Zionism’s push to stop soccer matches on Shabbat, and religious party support for a law to legalize gender segregation in public events.

Lapid’s government, which included parties from across the spectrum, is expected to be replaced by an alliance of right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox parties headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, which won 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the November 1 election.

The presumptive coalition is Israel’s most right-wing. Based on its members’ statements, their ascension to power will likely herald a massive policy shift on religion and state issues, the balance between the political and the judiciary, and minority rights.

Head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Shas chair Aryeh Deri at a conference in Jerusalem on September 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Referencing these expected changes, Lapid turned to Likud’s million-plus voters and asked, “Is this what you wanted? That’s why you voted for Likud?

“You are going to be a minority in this government. A minority of those serving in the army, a minority of the middle class, a minority of those who believe in a moderate Jewish tradition that welcomes every person,” he added.

Lapid had appreciably softened his rhetoric toward ultra-Orthodox Israelis in his year and a half in the ruling coalition, a tactic he abandoned in his speech Monday, which several Haredi lawmakers walking the Knesset’s halls called “incitement.”

UTJ leader Yitzhak Goldknopf said that “the mask has been removed from Lapid’s face.”

“He was ready to give [Islamist Ra’am leader] Mansour Abbas everything he asked for; how dare he incite against us? We do not want to take anything from others. We only ask for the correction of the ongoing injustice towards us. We want to be equals among equals,” Goldknopf added at the outset of his own party’s faction meeting.

Lapid has said that he will sit in the opposition rather than join hands again with Netanyahu, and his party denied reports last week that it was quietly negotiating to form a unity government with Likud to in a bid to keep out the far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam.

“If someone asks where we will be – we will be here in the Knesset day and night, we will be in the streets, we will be in the town squares, we will be on the bridges. We will not be silent, we will not disappear, we will not give up, we are fighting for the future of our children,” he said Monday.

United Torah Judaism chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf seen after coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Part of what Lapid said he would fight against is one of the key policy points the incoming coalition parties are planning to enact: an override clause that would rebalance power away from the Supreme Court toward the Knesset by letting the legislature reenact laws the court struck down.

Lapid said that the override clause would “crush the court” and “crush Israeli democracy.” He also charged that the clause — desired by all parties in the right-wing and religious coalition shaping up under  Netanyahu — is being particularly pursued for personal reasons.

Netanyahu is currently on trial for three corruption cases, and political partner Shas leader Aryeh Deri was convicted of tax fraud late last year. He will likely require fresh legislation to enable him to take up a ministerial portfolio, given his current suspended sentence.

Shas head Aryeh Deri at a conference in the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem Hotel, September 12, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It’s all so that Netanyahu can cancel his trial and so Deri can cancel his moral turpitude,” Lapid said.

Deri didn’t receive a conviction with a designation of moral turpitude, which would have barred him from politics for seven years, because he resigned from the Knesset earlier this year as part of a pre-sentence plea deal.

However, his ability to serve as a government minister is almost certain to be challenged in court. The attorney general released an opinion on Sunday saying that the Central Elections Committee must decide on this matter.

Playing a more conciliatory role, outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Monday that he supports a form of the hotly debated judicial reforms that would constrain both the High Court of Justice’s ability to invalidate laws and the Knesset’s ability to overcome the court’s strikedown, provided they require two-thirds majorities in each instance.

The National Unity party leader said that he is “in favor of carrying out a broad process of enacting a Basic Law, legislation with balanced checks between authorities, and requiring a large majority of judges in order to invalidate a law and a large majority [of MKs] to invalidate a court decision. For example: two-thirds of the High Court justices in order to invalidate a law, and two-thirds in order to overcome it and reinstate the law.”

During the election campaign, Gantz came out strongly against the incoming coalition’s plans to legislate an override clause to reinstate legislation struck down by the court. Negotiations teams from the right-religious coalition’s parties are currently debating the number of the Knesset’s 120 MKs required to do so, but the clause itself is a legislative priority shared by all of their parties.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers of the Yom Kippur War at Mount Herzl, October 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90, file)

Speaking at his party’s Monday faction meeting, Gantz charged that an override clause enabled by a simple majority of 61 MKs “legitimize[s] corruption,” alluding to the fact that it can be used to pass legislation that would enable Netanyahu to escape his ongoing corruption trial and let Deri assume a ministerial post.

“Whoever does this is acting in the name of corruption and not in the name of governance. What Netanyahu is seeking to carry out here is a ‘corruption revolution,’” the National Unity party leader said.

Gantz also said a narrow override clause hurts minority rights and challenges Israel’s ability to maintain “complete social and political equality for all of its citizens.”

“When you overcome the High Court of Justice with a majority of 61 — half of the people — you will feel that this is the government of half the people,” the defense minister added.

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