TV host stands in silence in memory of Israeli democracy

Mossad workers reportedly permitted to take part in anti-overhaul protests

Intel agency’s chief David Barnea said to let lower-ranking employees join demos; Netanyahu says he wants to ‘punch back’ against protesters, reportedly likens them to anti-vaxxers

Protesters rally against the government's judicial overhaul plans outside the Knesset, on February 20, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Protesters rally against the government's judicial overhaul plans outside the Knesset, on February 20, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Mossad chief David Barnea has reportedly approved a request from employees of the intelligence agency to take part in ongoing protests against the government’s push to radically transform the judicial system.

According to Hebrew media reports Friday, Barnea held a meeting on the matter with the Mossad’s legal adviser, who authorized lower-level ranking officials to take part in the demonstrations.

Department heads and anyone more senior were barred from taking part, the reports added.

As conditions of taking part in the protests, Mossad workers cannot expose their identities or take any actions indicating they have political links, a Channel 12 news report said.

The reports came after a group of reservist officers and soldiers from the Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division came out strongly against the plans to shake up the judiciary, warning in an open letter published earlier in the day that they would stop showing up for duty should the government move ahead with its plans.

The more than 100 servicepeople who signed the letter join groups of pilots, tankists, submariners, sailors, and other special forces who have penned similar letters in recent weeks.

Mossad chief David Barnea speaks during the opening ceremony of the Eli Cohen Museum in Herzliya, December 12, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu told ministerial colleagues Friday he wanted to “punch back” at protesters against the government and “hit out against the lies” he claimed were being told against his coalition’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, while seemingly comparing such alleged lies to Palestinian terrorism.

Comparing the protesters to those who demonstrated against a controversial natural gas deal he led in 2015, Netanyahu asserted that the deal had been a great success, before adding: “I want you to be equipped with these things and simply punch back. It’s not just hitting out against terror, [we need to] hit out against the lies.”

The quote was provided by the Prime Minister’s Office on Saturday night, a day after Channel 12 news reported on his comments while providing a different — apparently inaccurate — version of the quote, in which Netanyahu was cited as saying: “I want to give you a fist to strike them with… The same people who protested against the gas agreement or the coronavirus vaccines are the same people protesting today… Just like they said then that the gas deal would cause damage, they also say today that’s what the reform will do. We must strike down the lie.”

It was not clear whether the prime minister had indeed compared the protesters to anti-vaxxers. The PMO transcript did not mention them, but only provided a single, limited quote.

Netanyahu’s office stressed he had been speaking figuratively.

“When the prime minister used the word ‘strike,’ he meant to strike at the untrue arguments of those who spread panic, and not to physically strike anyone,” the PMO said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

Also Friday, a former Israeli soccer star held a minute of silence to protest the proposed changes to the judiciary during a talk show he co-hosts on the network.

“There is great unease,” Eyal Berkovic told co-host Ofira Assayag. “In memory of Israeli democracy and the transition to dictatorship, I want to stand for a minute of silence. Let’s hope for better days.”

He then proceeded to get up and stand in silence while holding an Israeli flag.

The outspoken Berkovic is one of Israel’s most legendary soccer players. He appeared in 79 games for the Israeli national team in the 1990s and 2000s, and played for a string of Premier League clubs over a career in Britain spanning a decade.

A screenshot from the Channel 12 talk show ‘Offira and Berko’ shows co-host Eyal Berkovic standing for a minute of silence to protest the government’s proposed overhaul of the judiciary, February 24, 2023. (Screen capture/Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Since being sworn in less than two months ago, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has prioritized the proposals, which are being spearheaded by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

The sweeping reforms, which have been being pushed through the Knesset in recent weeks, includes the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, all but eliminating the High Court’s ability to review and strike down legislation, and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.

Critics say the plan will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as weekly protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies.

Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism, saying that the proposals would strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.

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