Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu downplayed the effects of his government’s divisive judicial overhaul in a Thursday interview with a US news channel, saying the first law passed in the legislative package was a “minor correction” and that fears for Israel’s democracy were “silly.”
“We have to bring back Israeli democracy in line with what is common to all democracies. The essence of democracy is the balance between the will of the majority and the rights of the minority and that’s achieved by the three branches of government,” Netanyahu told ABC News.
“That’s been taken off the rails in Israel in the last 20 years because we have the most activist judicial court on the planet,” Netanyahu told interviewer George Stephanopoulos.
Netanyahu said the new law is “a minor correction. It’s described as the end of Israeli democracy. I think that’s silly and when the dust settles everybody will see that.”
The so-called “reasonableness” law passed on Monday prevents judicial oversight of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of reasonableness. The government’s critics say removing the standard opens the door to corruption and improper appointments of unqualified cronies to important positions.
The law was the first part in a larger package of bills that critics say will fundamentally alter Israel’s democratic system by stripping the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the governing coalition.
“Imagine that in the United States, the Supreme Court could tell the executive, the president, we are nullifying any one of your decisions just based on something we think is unreasonable. You would not accept it, we don’t accept it and that’s what we just did,” Netanyahu said.
Unlike the US and some other democracies, however, Israel’s only real check on the governing majority is the court system. Israel does not have a constitution or a system of state governance, for example, and has a unicameral legislature in which the executive and legislative branches function in tandem.
In addition to weakening the oversight abilities of the courts, the coalition’s proposed legislative package seeks to hand politicians control of judicial appointments.
The judicial overhaul in its current form and the government’s effort to steamroll it through the Knesset are widely unpopular with the public, according to polls.
The prime minister said he was seeking to build consensus and work on the next parts of the legislation with the opposition, which boycotted the vote on the reasonableness bill after unsuccessful negotiations hosted by President Isaac Herzog.
“I couldn’t get anything from the opposition and therefore decided to proceed with this minor correction,” Netanyahu said. “I’ll try to proceed, if not with a consensus with the opposition, the other side of the political aisle in our parliament, then at least at something that has broad acceptance in the public.”
“I’m actually more optimistic now than I was before. Now they can see that we’re prepared to move without them, we have the majority, maybe we’ll be able to move with them,” Netanyahu said. “I want to bring the pendulum to the middle. I don’t want to bring the pendulum to the other side.”
Netanyahu has given a number of interviews to US media about the judicial dispute, but not to Israeli outlets.
The overhaul legislation has set off massive, sustained public protests for over six months, as well as dire warnings from security officials, business leaders, legal experts, foreign allies and others.
Netanyahu also said that US President Joe Biden had invited him to meet at the White House, after a lack of clarity on a location for the planned meeting.
Netanyahu’s office previously said the two were to meet in the US, but did not say under what circumstances, amid lingering tensions over the judicial overhaul program.
The White House has also not given clear details on the planned meeting as of yet. There has been speculation it could take place at the United Nations on the sidelines of the General Assembly meeting, with Biden ostensibly unwilling to give the Israeli leader the prize of a White House sit-down.
“President Biden in the last conversation we had invited me to the White House in the fall — I think it’s in September but we’ll finalize the date,” Netanyahu said, while playing up the bonds between Israel and the US.
“I think our relations are very strong. I’m not just saying that. I think the cooperation on intelligence, on security, on strategic matters is as strong as it’s ever been. I can tell you that we’re working on things that I think will change history,” Netanyahu said, citing Israel’s attempts to rein in Iran and advance normalization with Saudi Arabia.
The US, other Israeli allies including the UK and France, and Diaspora Jewish groups have all expressed alarm about the judicial legislation and the fissures it has opened in Israeli society, and urged compromise.
Amid the criticism, the Foreign Ministry issued instructions to its missions around the world on Thursday, telling them to explain the dispute as a democratic process.
The ministry told representatives to say the government “is advancing a reform, the purpose of which is to strengthen the standing of the legislative branch.”
It said the mass protests in the country against these actions “are an example of Israeli democracy” and that dialogue is ongoing for compromise, although no such dialogue is currently taking place.