Netanyahu rails at ‘thuggish behavior’ of protesters, insists he’s open to dialogue, but says today’s votes will go ahead as planned

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounces the actions of demonstrators and leaders of the protest movement against the coalition’s radical legal reform program, but says agreement can be reached on the government’s judicial overhaul package with the opposition and calls on its leaders to enter into dialogue.

First, though, he stresses, the first reading in the Knesset on parts of the legislation, including giving the coalition a majority on the panel that chooses Israel’s judges, will go ahead as scheduled later today. (Legislation needs three Knesset readings to become law.)

“We all said six weeks ago there is room for dialogue, but there is no place for thuggish behavior,” says Netanyahu at the beginning of a Likud faction meeting.

“Opposition leaders, start talking, there is still time to speak. We can still reduce the gaps and come to agreements,” continues the prime minister.

Netanyahu condemns protest leaders for “threatening us with civil war and blood in the streets.” The leaders of the protests “are destroying democracy. They don’t accept the results of the elections. They don’t accept the majority’s decision. They don’t condemn calls to murder the prime minister and his family. They don’t condemn calls to harm and murder members of Knesset,” he says.

And he deplores the actions of some demonstrators this morning who blocked Likud MK Tally Gotliv from leaving her home to go to vote in the Knesset, as well as preventing her from taking her special-needs daughter to school. “They reached a new low this morning,” he says.

“These are the thugs who are preaching ethics to us, who speak about human values when they are trampling those values into the ground,” fumes Netanyahu. “I thank those in the opposition who condemned this behavior, and those who didn’t, you should be ashamed of yourselves… you have gone completely off the rails.”

He then turns to the attorney general’s warning that he is not allowed to handle the judicial overhaul because of his conflict of interest arrangement. “I’m told: Not only can’t you deal with the reform, but you can’t speak about it,” he says bitterly. “You were elected but you can’t speak on behalf of the electorate. How am I supposed to represent them? Telepathically?”

Nonetheless, he says, “There is room for dialogue; not for thuggery.”

He says many leaders of the opposition agree with this approach but are scared to say so. “Be leaders,” he says.

President Isaac Herzog offered compromise proposals last week and urged that the legislation be paused to enable dialogue, and that today’s first readings of some of the legislation not go ahead. Opposition leader Yair Lapid called for a 60-day halt to the progress of the legislation. Coalition leaders endorsed the idea of dialogue but refused to halt the legislative process.

Netanyahu says “there is more than enough time to talk and a genuine desire… to close gaps and reach agreements.”

But he stresses that today’s votes on the first readings of some of the overhaul will go ahead as planned.

“So, today there will be votes, and tomorrow I hope the path will be opened to dialogue.”

One thing won’t change, he concludes: “The people made its electoral choices and the representatives of the people will exercise their right to vote here in the Knesset. That’s called democracy.”

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