Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed on Thursday night that efforts were still being made to reach broad agreement on a controversial push by his hardline government to cancel the judicial “reasonableness” test for governmental decisions, and insisted that it will not threaten democracy.
The “reasonableness” bill is set to be voted into law early next week, following a fast-tracked process by Netanyahu’s hard-right, religious government to approve it before the Knesset’s summer recess. Having been voted through by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday night, it cannot be changed without going back to committee, which would in turn mean it could not be passed in this Knesset session as the coalition has pledged to do.
It was not clear what efforts the premier was referring to. His remarks were swiftly excoriated by opposition figures who called on the prime minister to resume negotiations on the overhaul hosted by President Isaac Herzog, which fell apart last month. Anti-overhaul protesters also gathered at numerous locations around the country after his speech, with the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv and several other junctions briefly blocked.
In his televised address on Thursday night, Netanyahu defended his coalition’s efforts to radically overhaul the judiciary, in unilateral moves that have generated widespread opposition, sparked mass protests, and have elicited increasingly alarmed warnings by the United States.
He began by hailing the country’s unity, saying that “we all want a Jewish and democratic state, we all want a strong IDF and we all understand that we only have one country,” and added that there are “natural” disputes in “every democracy.”
“Many believe the balance of powers between authorities has been upended and… that this balance must be restored, so that the democratic choice of the people will be expressed by the government chosen by the people, and will express the will of the people.”
“Others are legitimately concerned about the ramifications… while others simply want to overthrow the democratically elected government, without any connection to the reform,” he charged.
In any case, the premier stated, “Israel will remain a democratic country, [and] will continue to be a liberal country. It won’t become a halachic state and will protect individual rights for all.”
“But when I say everyone, these rights really must be equal for everyone,” he added, declaring that there cannot be people above the law — “who can block roads, set fires, block trains, block ambulances, endanger lives.” This was an apparent dig at law enforcement for its handling of the massive, sustained protests against his coalition’s judicial overhaul push.
Netanyahu’s government has taken aim at Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who was castigated at length earlier this month by the prime minister and members of his cabinet for what they alleged was the failure of her office and other law enforcement agencies to deal severely enough with anti-government demonstrators over the last six months.
The massive wave of protests has included rallying outside coalition ministers’ homes, blocking highways, disrupting airport operations and other forms of civil disobedience. Ministers have bristled at what they view as overly soft handling of demonstrators who harass and heckle them wherever they go, stage protests at their homes and block key roads for hours at a time.
Baharav-Miara has repeatedly warned Netanyahu against any political interference in the police’s response to mass demonstrations amid mounting concerns that his hardline government would dial up the pressure on the law enforcement system to suppress the protests on its behalf.
In his speech on Thursday, Netanyahu said that the actual threat to Israel’s democracy was not his government’s planned legislation — which will remove checks and balances on the Knesset and bring most judicial appointments under political control — but refusals to show up for reserve military duty, as many have threatened if the “reasonableness” bill passes.
“In a democracy, the military is subordinate to the army, it doesn’t subordinate the government. When military elements attempt to dictate government policy via threats, that is illegitimate in any democracy. And if they succeed… that is the end of democracy,” he said.
“No responsible government, no responsible state, can agree to that, and every citizen must oppose it with full force,” he added. “In a proper democracy, it is not the hand holding the weapon that determines what happens, but the hand that puts the voting slip into the ballot box.”
“Refusal from one side will inevitably lead to refusal from the other, and where will that end?”
The prime minister compared the overhaul to controversial moves by previous governments — citing the Oslo Accords, the uprooting of Gaza Strip settlements in 2005, and the establishment of the previous coalition headed by former premier Naftali Bennett which included “anti-Zionist elements” (a reference to the Islamist Ra’am party) — and said that even though some saw these as threats to Israel’s existence, nobody threatened refusal to serve.
He further lamented that former prime ministers and IDF chiefs are among the “prime inciters of widespread refusal to serve” even as they “are well aware of the serious meaning of the threat of refusal in the eyes of our enemies.”
Netanyahu claimed his government wants consensus on the overhaul, and therefore held compromise talks with the opposition for three months, arguing that the opposition rejected all coalition’s offers. He suggested this may have been due to pressure from “extremists in the leadership of the protests who openly say they don’t want any compromise, but who seek solely to create chaos in order to topple the government without connection to the reform.”
He said the coalition nonetheless watered down the planned sweeping judicial reform package, canceled the sweeping “override” proposal and is only currently advancing the “necessary” reasonableness bill.
“This is an attempt to scare you without reason,” he said, again arguing that the bill won’t endanger democracy. Rather, it will “stregthen democracy,” he said.
But, he said, there were still efforts for an agreement on the reasonableness bill, even though it is due to pass into law at the beginning of next week.
“Even in these very moments, I want to tell you, efforts are being made to reach agreement on the ‘reasonableness’ doctrine. I greatly hope these efforts will succeed.
“But even if they do not, the coalition’s door will always remain open to you, the people of Israel, and also to the opposition,” he said. “Because even in the stormiest days, we remember, I always remember one thing: we are one nation, with one destiny, we have no other country, we are brothers.”
Unnamed National Unity sources cited by the Walla news site denied Netanyahu’s claims of ongoing talks for agreement on the “reasonableness,” bill and said they were unaware of any such talks with the coalition in recent days.
Condemnations of Netanyahu’s remarks quickly followed, with opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party saying, “What we saw tonight is a prime minister who is tearing apart the country instead of uniting it, who lies instead of telling the citizens the truth.”
“Those responsible for what is happening today in the economy, for the rift in our social fabric and especially for the damage to security, [and] who is causing the army to fall apart from within, is the most extremist government in the country’s history. The responsibility is on them,” said Lapid.
Lapid said that the opposition has called on Netanyahu repeatedly “to stop the legislation, return to the president’s residence and reach broad agreements — I repeat this call.”
Benny Gantz’s National Unity party said the premier was bringing Israel to the “brink of civil war.”
“Netanyahu is talking about the need to unify the nation, and in effect is pushing us to an unprecedented historic crisis, on the brink of civil war,” the party said
“We again call on Netanyahu to accept Gantz’s offer and to return to an outline of broad agreements that will stop the chaos and put Israel back on track to deal with the immense challenges it faces. History won’t forgive someone who chooses petty politics over the benefit of the State of Israel,” it added.