Opening Knesset, Rivlin warns of government ‘coup’ against democracy
Coalition head Bitan: He hasn’t been on our side for a while

Opening Knesset, Rivlin warns of government ‘coup’ against democracy

In impassioned speech, president slams attempts to ‘weaken the gatekeepers’ — the media and the Supreme Court

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

President Reuven Rivlin (L) addresses the Israeli parliament during a special plenum session marking the 50th birthday of the Knesset on January 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin (L) addresses the Israeli parliament during a special plenum session marking the 50th birthday of the Knesset on January 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking at the opening of the Knesset winter session on Monday, President Reuven Rivlin launched a passionate defense of the judicial system and the media, saying government attempts to undermine them amount to a “coup” against the pillars of Israeli democracy.

“The Knesset is the representative of the sovereign, the people of Israel, the entire people of Israel. In this house we must remember that it is the people we must live up to. This wonderful people who we have been privileged to serve and represent,” Rivlin told Knesset members and guests at the ceremony.

Rivlin accused political leaders of weakening state institutions by attacking them for narrow political gain. “From the ‘political’ professional bureaucracy to the ‘political’ state comptroller, the ‘political’ Supreme Court ‘politicians,’ the ‘political’ security forces, and even the IDF, our Israel Defense Forces are ‘political;’ the whole country and its institutions – politics,” he said.

Slamming legislative efforts to “weaken the Supreme Court” and “silence the free media,” Rivlin likened attempts to the “judicial revolution” of former Supreme Court chief justice Aharon Barak in 1996, which sought to give the court widened powers to overturn Knesset laws.

“About a decade ago I stood before one of the giants of Israeli law, Aharon Barak, and warned that the announcement of the constitutional revolution was actually a declaration of a coup. I said to him then, and I quote: ‘Any definition that changes the balance (of power), any act that expresses or even symbolizes stepping into the territory of another branch creates a reality of ‘chaotic democracy,’ of systemic and dangerous chaos,” Rivlin said.

Mishael Cheshin, left, and Aharon Barak at a ceremony in Jerusalem on October 18, 2006. (FLASH90)

“Today, some three decades after the announcement of that ‘constitutional revolution,’ I would like to point out what I believe to be the counter-movement of the historical pendulum, in what seems to be a decision of the top echelons to tip the balance,” he added.

Rivlin, a former Likud lawmaker, was criticized by party members for his comments.

“He hasn’t been on our side for a while,” MK David Bitan told reporters in the halls of the Knesset.

Sport and Culture Minister Miri Regev also slammed Rivlin. “A president that belittles politicians, belittles the will of the people and hurts the heart of democracy,” she said.

Ahead of the winter sitting, several coalition lawmakers have vowed to advance a constitutional Basic Law to rein in the Supreme Court, accusing the justices of overstepping their mandate in rejecting Knesset legislation in a series of recent rulings.

Speaking at the weekly faction meeting of his Jewish Home party, flanked by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Bennett accused the Supreme Court, which doubles as the constitutional High Court of Justice, of “forgetting” its role and placing the judiciary above the legislative branch.

Head of the Jewish Home party and Education Minister Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 23, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“There are judges in Jerusalem who have forgotten that there is also a government in Jerusalem,” said Bennett, as the Knesset reconvened after a three-month break. “In recent years, the High Court has placed itself above the legislature instead of alongside it.”

The minister, whose Jewish Home party is a key coalition partner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, said a proposed Basic Law to delineate the boundaries of the judiciary and legislative branches would be his “central goal” over the next few months.

Rivlin said that the efforts would only served to “intimidate the court, to weaken it as an institution and to invite the public to challenge his authority and decisions.”

“The same applies to the media,” Rivlin said, referring to months of criticism leveled against Israel’s media outlets by Netanyahu and his Likud allies over coverage of two criminal investigations into the premier’s alleged corruption.

Earlier this month, it was reported that police were deepening their investigations into Netanyahu’s actions and that he will be summoned soon for questioning in the two investigations against him, cases 1000 and 2000.

Case 1000 relates to allegations that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

Investigators are also expected to set a date for Netanyahu to provide testimony as a witness in Case 3000, which involves suspected corruption by several associates of the prime minister in the sale of German submarines to Israel, the report said. Netanyahu is not a suspect in the submarines case.

At solidarity rallies organized on his behalf ,Netanyahu has castigated the “left and the media” — asserting that the two are “the same thing.”

“The Israeli media is not free from criticism,” Rivlin said. “It sometimes sins. However, it is one thing to work on repairing the media, and to require it to be more diverse, professional and more practical — and another to seek to control it.”

Rivlin concluded by calling on lawmakers to end “what appears to be an ongoing attempt to weaken the gatekeepers of Israeli democracy.”

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