Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman on Friday called to jail former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit for “incitement,” after the ex-official warned in an interview that the stark division in the country over the government’s judicial overhaul would likely end in violence.
Rothman, who serves as chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, is a key architect of the reform and his call echoes those of other government members to jail critical opponents.
Mandelblit, who served as attorney general, under the previous government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a wide-ranging interview with Channel 12’s Uvda program on Thursday night, in which he warned the judicial reform was tantamount to “regime change” and would destroy the Israeli legal system.
In the interview, Mandelblit spoke of the deep divide between the sides and warned the situation “will continue to deteriorate, it’s not over. It will end in violence; someone or some people will pay the price in blood. That’s what will happen.”
Rothman responded to Mandelblit in a combative interview on Radio 103 FM on Friday, where he charged that the former attorney general should be locked up for incitement.
“A person who talks about fixing the justice system and uses phrases such as ‘blood in the streets’ is a person who lacks responsibility, who calls for a rebellion and incites. The fact that this person was the attorney general is a total disgrace… he should be put in jail.” Rothman said.
Citing a similarly strong warning made by former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, Rothman opined that the concerns raised by the pair were heavily exaggerated “when all we are doing is advancing the judicial system, the separation of powers and restoration of the people’s sovereignty.”
In a series of TV interviews in January, Barak described the reforms as a “string of poison pills” that, if materialized, would mark “the beginning of the end of the Third House” — the third period of Jewish national sovereignty, after the ancient First and Second Temple eras.
Rothman also accused the media of exaggerating opposition to the plan and platforming “every person opposed to the smallest comma in the reform proposal.”
“This extremist leading the destruction of Israeli democracy now wants to throw those brazen enough to think differently into prison. How predictable,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said in response to Rothman’s comments.
New Hope head Gideon Sa’ar, who was the justice minister in the previous government led by Naftali Bennett and Lapid, defended Mendelblit, saying he never made any call for violence. “Rather, he expressed his fear that it would reach that stage.”
Sa’ar accused Rothman of producing the “most serious social rift in the country’s history,” and said that MK’s call to jail Mendelblit was evidence of his intention to jail those who oppose the judicial makeover.
The coalition led by Netanyahu has been pushing a dramatic overhaul that would increase government control over the judiciary, allow it to override court decisions with the barest majority, and give it full power over judicial appointments.
Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost complete power to the executive branch, and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.
Rothman is not the first government MK to call to jail critics.
In January, Zvika Fogel of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party labeled opposition heads “treasonous” and called for their arrest.
Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Fogel was responding to comments made at the time by Lapid, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz and former MKs Yair Golan and Moshe Ya’alon against plans by the government to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.
“This is crazy. These four should be arrested. These are the most dangerous people right now,” said Fogel. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s treason against the state, if I wasn’t clear enough.”
The comments were roundly denounced, including by Netanyahu and Fogel’s party leader Itamar Ben Gvir, who reaffirmed that “police would not arrest political opponents.”
However, he won support from other Otzmah Yehudit lawmakers.
Mandelblit, in his Thursday TV interview, accused Netanyahu of advancing the overhaul in order to bring his ongoing criminal trial to a premature end and insisted that he had been right to indict the premier despite the political instability that ensued.
Mandelblit was once a close confidant of Netanyahu and served as his cabinet secretary from 2013-2016 before being appointed attorney general. The police began investigating corruption allegations against Netanyahu in 2016, and Mandelblit indicted him in November 2019. It marked the first time an attorney general has indicted a sitting prime minister.
Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases where he faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in two cases, and bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in the third. He denies wrongdoing and says the charges were fabricated in a political coup led by the police and state prosecution.
Mandelblit said in the interview aired Thursday that the legal overhaul was “not reform.”
“It’s a revolution, regime change. It’s a complete change of the DNA upon which we grew up, and the upshot is the elimination of the independence of the legal system from end to end,” Mandelblit said.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report