Compares issue to Bible's Judgement of Solomon

Netanyahu says he’s delaying overhaul to allow dialogue, but vows reform will happen

PM says he’s pausing judicial revamp to avoid ‘civil war,’ asserts ‘extreme minority tearing Israel to shreds’; opposition heads offer wary approval for talks, warn against bluff

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the nation, March 27, 2023. (GPO Screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the nation, March 27, 2023. (GPO Screenshot)

In a prickly speech Monday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was temporarily delaying his government’s highly contentious judicial overhaul legislation to allow time for dialogue over the far-reaching reforms.

After immense public pressure that has seen 12 weeks of massive demonstrations, and, on Monday, the announcement of general strikes by the country’s top labor federation and local councils, the prime minister said he was allowing for “a delay” to provide “ a real opportunity for real dialogue,” but stressed that “either way,” a reform would be passed to “restore the balance” that he said had been lost between the branches of government in Israel.

The premier indicated the “time out” would last until the beginning of the Knesset’s summer session, which starts April 30.

President Isaac Herzog welcomed the pause and said it was “time for frank, serious and responsible discussion that will lead urgently to calming spirits and lowering the flames.”

Netanyahu specifically referred to National Unity party leader Benny Gantz as a potential partner for dialogue, and said he was extending his hand to him and others who want to enter into “good faith” talks (though he did not mention opposition leader Yair Lapid).

Although declaring that he sought to avoid dividing the nation, Netanyahu decried elements of the protest movement as violent “extremists” who wanted to tear the nation apart and insinuated that supporters of the right-wing, religious government are treated as second-class citizens.

Noticeably absent from Netanyahu’s speech was any reference to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whom he fired on Sunday night, after Gallant said publicly that the hurried drive to pass the controversial overhaul was causing severe damage to cohesion within the armed forces and presented a tangible danger to Israel’s national security.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrives for a meeting at the Knesset on March 27, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was not clear Monday night whether Netanyahu intended to reverse the removal of Gallant, who had not yet been served a letter of dismissal.

It was the decision to fire Gallant that sparked unprecedented nighttime protests throughout the country on Sunday night, including the complete closure of Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway for long hours, and the general strike on Monday, which saw Ben Gurion Airport, the Haifa and Ashdod ports, and large parts of the economy shuttered, as labor leaders demanded the legislation be halted.

After Netanyahu’s speech Monday evening, the Histadrut labor federation and local council leaders welcomed the move toward dialogue, and said they were halting their strike.

Travelers at Ben Gurion Airport as flights are being delayed due workers going on strike in protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, March 27, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Opposition warily accepts talks, protest leaders do not

Gantz welcomed the legislative pause, saying he would enter into negotiations at the President’s Residence “with an open heart, not to defeat, but to agree.”

Gantz promised to hear the concerns of the overhaul’s proponents and said he aimed to “improve governability and checks and balances,” and would not compromise on basic democratic foundations and on a comprehensive quasi-constitutional Basic Law laying down clear authorities and limits on legislation and the ability to strike it down.

Gantz denounced cynical politicians allegedly trying to incite violence between the different parts of society, saying: “No to civil war, no to divisions, yes to agreement and dialogue.”

Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks to the media at the Knesset, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid expressed doubt about the genuineness of Netanyahu’s delay, saying dialogue for an agreed reform must end with a constitution.

“If the legislation really does stop, genuinely and totally, we are ready to start a genuine dialogue at the President’s Residence,” Lapid said.

“We need to sit together and write the Israeli constitution based on the values of the Declaration of Independence. We need to let the president determine a mechanism for the dialogue and trust him to be a fair mediator.”

Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid and National Unity head MK Benny Gantz seen at the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We‘ve had a bad experience [with Netanyahu] in the past and so first, we’ll make sure that there are no tricks or bluffing here. We heard with concern yesterday the reports that Netanyahu told the people close to him that he isn’t really stopping, just trying to calm the situation,” Lapid added.

“If he tries anything, he’ll find hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis who are committed to fighting for our democracy standing opposite him, committed to be the fortification that protects the country and its democracy.

“On the other hand, if the government engages in a real and fair dialogue we can come out of this moment of crisis — stronger and more united.”

Others were even more skeptical.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli and Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman both accused Netanyahu of seeking to pacify the protest movement and to deprive it of energy before resuming the legislative push.

“We’ve said all along, we’ll only accept a full removal of the dangerous coup bills. Netanyahu is not removing them, he’s buying time at the expense of our democracy,” Michaeli said.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli at a joint press conference with opposition party heads at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

And protest leaders were also dismissive, saying they would continue to fight so long as the legislation is not mothballed and the government vows not to legislate unilaterally.

“The statements by the prime minister and his extremist partners are an admission that they intend to continue to legislate the dictatorship laws in the next Knesset session.”

“This is another attempt to weaken the protest,” they said.

‘We’re not letting them win’

Despite Netanyahu’s agreement to suspend the legislation, his far-right coalition partners insisted that it would yet pass.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich told a large rally of right-wing protesters outside the Knesset that they represented the country’s majority who wanted a reform of the judiciary. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told the rally that earlier in the day he had briefly decided to resign from the government over the decision to pause the legislation, but then decided to stay after witnessing the anti-overhaul protests.

“I went outside and saw the anarchists’ demonstration and understood that if I resign, it will give them a victory. They will not win,” Ben Gvir said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi told protesters they were giving the coalition “an impetus to continue promoting what you chose.”

“I say to you we will not stop. With God’s help, the reform will pass. Even if there is a delay, don’t lose heart,” he said.

According to Channel 12 news, during talks between ministers earlier in the day, Ben Gvir similarly said the decision to delay was “letting the anarchists win.”

“We’re not letting them win. We’ll only halt the legislation for a few months,” Smotrich was said to reply.

Justice Minister Yair Levin reportedly responded that “We need to be smart. We’ll pass the legislation later on, but not now,” adding that there were Likud MKs who opposed the current legislation and saying he was unsure if there was even a majority to pass it in the Knesset at the moment.

“The people want reform, and they will get it, but we also have to look at what’s going on outside. It can’t be ignored,” Levin reportedly added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Justice Minister Yariv Levin, in the Knesset on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Solomon’s baby

Netanyahu started his speech by invoking the biblical tale of the Judgment of King Solomon, in which two women claimed to be the true mother of an infant. When the king, standing in judgment, offered to cut the baby in two and offer half to each, one agreed while the other forfeited her claim, for the sake of  keep the child alive — thus showing herself to be the true mother.

“Today too, two sides of a national disagreement claim to love the baby — to love our country,” he said. “I am attentive to many people’s desire to end this tension.

“But there is one thing I am not willing to accept. There is an extreme minority who is willing to tear our country to shreds. It is using violence, lighting fires, threatening to harm elected representatives, inciting to civil war, and calling for refusal [in the military] which is a terrible crime.

Saying he demanded the heads of security forces root out any form of refusal, Netanyahu said that “When there is a chance to stop civil war through dialogue, I as prime minister am taking a time out for dialogue. I am giving a real opportunity for real dialogue,” intoned Netanyahu.

“We stand by the need to bring about necessary changes to the legal system and we will give an opportunity to achieve them through broad consensus,” he continued.

He said that “out of national responsibility and a will to avoid dividing the nation” he had decided to “delay” the final votes for legislation to give governing coalitions broad control over judicial appointments in Israel.

“Either way, we will pass a reform that will restore a balance that has been lost between the branches of government while preserving — and, I add strengthening — individual rights,” the premier continued.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

He praised supporters of his government who came to Jerusalem on Monday night to express approval for the judicial overhaul agenda, saying he was ”proud” of them. He assured them they were “not second-class citizens,” in a veiled reference to assertions by the Likud that it is the defender of the Mizrachi Jewish public.

“Our path is just. Most of the nation understands the necessity of reform to the legal system. We will not allow the free choice of the people to be stolen, we will not back down on the path we were elected for, but we will make an effort to achieve broad consensus,” concluded Netanyahu.

The prime minister’s decision to axe Gallant on Sunday night was met with nationwide protests overnight and followed by the Histadrut labor federation’s declaration of a general strike, which was swiftly joined by others, ramping up pressure on Netanyahu.

The premier’s decision to pause the legislation marked a sharp reversal for him, days after he had vowed to press ahead with the legislation and enact its first core element this week.

Bill to take control of judge selection panel clears committee

Netanyahu’s announcement came shortly after a bill that heavily politicizes the judicial selection committee and would give the coalition almost complete control over judicial appointments was approved by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for its final readings in the Knesset plenum.

Following the vote, the panel’s far-right chairman urged supporters of the coalition to attend the right-wing rally outside the Knesset.

“They won’t steal the elections!” Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman wrote on Twitter. “The people demand a radical correction to the justice system.”

Masses protest outside the Knesset against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Throughout the committee proceedings, opposition MKs denounced Rothman, shouting and interrupting the hearing as he struggled to complete the voting procedure in the face of the mass disruption.

“I turn to the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who took to the streets last night and say to you ‘You are our brothers and heroes,’ thank you,” said Labor MK Gilad Kariv of the opposition during his statement on the legislation.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman votes during a committee hearing, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Know that the struggle for Israeli democracy and our home is far from being decided, and we need great strength to guarantee the resilience of Israeli democracy and the future of Zionism,” continued Kariv.

He also addressed “some” of the coalition MKs, and warned them of what he said was “the dangerous spiral” the country was in adding “You know that the prime minister is surrounded by a toxic environment that leads him to decisions that endanger the resilience of the State of Israel – Stop now. This train which is careening towards the abyss can still be stopped.”

Rothman defended the bill, describing it as “a balanced and good law for all the people of Israel.” He claimed similar arrangements exist in other democratic countries” and said opponents of the legislation were spreading “fake news” about the measure.

“In every democratic country, the people elect judges. The judges do not have a veto on who will enter the gates of the court and there are balancing mechanisms designed to prevent a small majority from taking over the institutions of power. All of this is in the law,” said Rothman.

Supporters of the government’s planned judicial overhaul rally in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Erik Marmor/ Flash90)

Numerous legal scholars and experts, including the former Irish justice minister Alan Shatter on Sunday, have rejected these arguments, pointing out that even in countries such as Ireland, as well as Canada, Germany, Sweden and others where the justice minister or other cabinet officials make the final selection, candidate lists are drawn up by professional advisory boards with little to no political input.

Also Monday, a law to enable Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri to return to cabinet office which was supposed to receive final approval in the plenum this week was frozen, reportedly at the request of Deri himself, due to the massive anti-government protests staged Sunday night.

The bill would eliminate the High Court’s oversight of ministerial appointments, allowing Netanyahu to reappoint Deri to the ministerial posts he was forced to leave in January, due to a High Court ruling that cited his previous criminal convictions.

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