'Israel not a democracy, is ruled by elitist minority'

Likud’s Amsalem calls to put Supreme Court chief, protest leaders on trial

Minister admits lacking coalition support for overhaul, vows it’ll pass; Likud’s Gotliv claims left ‘betrayed’ Israel, Obama paid Israeli news site for anti-Netanyahu stories

Likud minister David Amsalem on Meet the Press, April 15, 2023. (Channel 12 screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Likud minister David Amsalem on Meet the Press, April 15, 2023. (Channel 12 screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

MK David Amsalem, who serves as a second minister within the Justice Ministry, said Saturday that Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and former court chief Aharon Barak should be charged with “an attempted coup” while repeating his provocative call for a broad investigation of the protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

Speaking on Channel 12’s Meet the Press, the firebrand politician claimed the two top jurists had led the protest movement against the government’s judicial overhaul — widely seen as a grassroots initiative.

“Everyone who led this protest, including [former prime minister] Ehud Barak, Aharon Barak and the Supreme Court president, are people who should be charged with an attempted coup,” he said, while not explaining what actions the individuals had specifically taken to warrant legal charges.

Amsalem repeated his desire to form an investigative committee to probe the protests and protesters “even if it does not happen now.”

Amsalem made the claim often used by proponents of the judicial shakeup that “the country is ruled by an elitist, Tel Aviv minority, which has broken all the rules” to oppose the legislation.

He acknowledged that there was insufficient coalition support for the bills, which were halted last month for negotiations with the opposition to try to reach a consensus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the pause amid massive national protests and reports that the coalition could not muster the required 61 votes to pass the bills.

“Within Likud, apparently, we had a number of [Knesset members] with whom we couldn’t pass the reform right now,” Amsalem said. “It will happen later,” he said, since Israel, in his view, was currently “not a democratic country.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut attends a hearing in Jerusalem on December 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last month Amsalem said “the day will come” when numerous individuals will be investigated and prosecuted over their part in nationwide protests, warning the chief of police that he could find himself among them. Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai appeared to respond by saying the force would not be intimidated by anyone, and would protect the right to freedom of speech and demonstration.

Amsalem was appointed a second minister within the Justice Ministry in late March. It is not clear what authority he holds, with no details given by either himself or the government.

Though the overhaul legislation has been put off, comments such as Amsalem’s have likely helped keep the protests alive, with organizers repeatedly quoting top coalition officials vowing to resume the effort at full speed if and when talks at the President’s Residence fail.

Saturday once again saw tens of thousands rally in Tel Aviv and in cities throughout the country, vowing not to let any part of the overhaul pass into law.

Smaller right-wing counter-protests were also held in over a dozen locations, and a fellow firebrand Likud MK made a controversial comment at one of the rallies, drawing angry reactions.

Addressing demonstrators in Netanya, Tally Gotliv said that “the left has lost it, the left betrayed the State of Israel. The left has forgotten the most basic values of the nation of Israel, and of a Jewish and democratic state.”

Gotliv was also filmed speaking with a man, apparently an international reporter, and arguing to him in broken English that former US president Barack Obama has paid Israel’s Walla news site to publish stories against Netanyahu. (The lawmaker said “stories” in Hebrew, but it was mistranslated into English by the man next to her as “advertisements”).

This week, organizers of the anti-overhaul protest movement threatened to deploy new forms of civil disobedience if lawmakers move to swiftly advance the legislation, highlighting rampant doubts around talks to reach a compromise on the sweeping reforms.

Protest organizers have continued to express heavy skepticism toward the negotiations between Yesh Atid and National Unity on one side and the ruling coalition on the other, under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog. They allege the talks are a ruse to quell the protest movement and advance the legislation quietly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin, left, during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool)

Opponents worry that the judicial appointments bill, which had advanced to its last two Knesset votes before the freeze was announced, could go before the Knesset plenum for final approval at a moment’s notice once the Knesset returns from its Passover recess at the end of the month.

Proponents of the government’s overhaul plans say reforms are needed to rein in politically motivated judicial activism.

Ziv Keinan, one of the founding members of the Kumi Israel (Arise Israel) organization, claimed Thursday that lawmakers had used the freeze to plot how to advance the legislation rather than negotiate it being watered down, meaning protesters would be needed “on the ground” to “deliver the message that we won’t allow our democracy to be turned into a dictatorship.”

“People will fight in the streets for democracy at any price,” said Keinan, whose group has been a key organizer in the anti-government demonstrations.  “We have a massive arsenal of tools [for civil disobedience] with which we intend to intensify the protest if necessary.”

Keinan would not detail the new types of civil disobedience, but said that “What has been seen until now is the tip of the iceberg.”

One of the major forms of non-violent civil disobedience used so far has been to block major highways and junctions around the country, causing severe traffic jams and leading to confrontations with the police who have used water cannons and stun grenades to disperse protesters.

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