Abbas: Justice system is the 'primary protection' for Arabs

Opposition heads back Herzog’s ‘not ideal’ proposal, pan coalition for dismissing it

Lapid says coalition’s swift rejection of judicial reform framework akin to telling president to ‘go to hell’; Netanyahu says president’s plan is ‘one-sided’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

From right to left: Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas, Labor leader Merav Michaeli, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, National Unity leader MK Benny Gant and Yisrael Beyteneu leader Avigdor Liberman hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
From right to left: Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas, Labor leader Merav Michaeli, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, National Unity leader MK Benny Gant and Yisrael Beyteneu leader Avigdor Liberman hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Opposition chiefs rallied Thursday behind President Isaac Herzog’s proposed framework for judicial reform, calling the proposal workable but not ideal, amid the coalition’s blanket rejection of the framework.

Five of the opposition’s six party leaders jointly backed the proposal as a basis for compromise, with several expressing concern that failure to curb the coalition’s march towards weakening the judiciary would leave civil rights and minorities unprotected.

The majority Arab Hadash-Ta’al party, which has largely stayed out of the judicial overhaul fray, was not a part of the opposition parties’ press conference.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said the president’s framework “is not the ideal framework, but it is a realistic framework,” while opposition leader Yair Lapid said that while the proposal “isn’t perfect,” his party is embracing the proposal to stave off “civil war.”

Lapid and Gantz slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for dismissing the proposal, with the Yesh Atid party chief saying the reaction was akin to telling Herzog he could “go to hell.”

The premier quickly hit back, saying that “the framework that the president presented yesterday was completely one-sided.”

“How do we know that? Because one side accepts it, and the other side rejects it,” the Likud leader said in a video message taped from Berlin, in comments echoed by the coalition’s far-right and religious parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video statement filmed in Berlin, March 16, 2023. (Twitter screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Herzog presented his much-awaited judicial reform framework on Wednesday night, after weeks of consultations with academics and politicians. The coalition quickly dismissed the proposal, which does not include many of its core goals. On Thursday, protests continued to rip across Israel, in the tenth week of demonstrations against the coalition’s plan.

Lapid said that Herzog’s framework “isn’t what we wanted, but it is a fair compromise that allows us to live here together.”

Amid fears that “the alternative is serious harm to our economy and our national security, and an angry, confused society torn to pieces,” Lapid slammed the government for quickly rejecting the proposal.

The opposition chief said “it took the government 17 minutes to announce they reject the framework,” adding: “They told the president he could go to hell” before “even bother[ing] to study it.”

Lapid said that his Yesh Atid party “accept[s] the president’s framework because there will only be losers in a civil war.”

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli (R), Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid and other opposition chiefs hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Despite Netanyahu’s dismissal of Herzog’s framework, Lapid made a plea to other members of the premier’s Likud party, saying “they know what’s at stake.”

“They know that in the future, every Israeli citizen will ask themselves: Where was I in the winter of 2023? Was I silent when I saw my country being driven off a cliff?” he said.

Like Lapid, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said that the president’s framework “is not the ideal framework, but it is a realistic framework,” and called on Netanyahu to “show responsibility” and engage in dialogue based on the framework that the coalition has already resoundingly rejected.

A week away from the holy Muslim month of Ramadan — which usually sees heightened tensions with the Palestinians — and days after a Lebanese terrorist infiltrated Israel and carried out an explosive attack, Gantz said Israel’s security concerns demand unity.

“We can’t show weakness,” the former defense minister said, adding that it was time for Israel to show unity in face of the security threats.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror organization has reportedly assessed Israel to be in a moment of weakness, due to its focus on retooling the judiciary and the social division it has fomented.

Gantz added that if the reform were to pass, Israel would no longer be a liberal democracy and “every citizen’s” civil rights and liberties would be in danger.

“It is a recipe for destroying all of the Zionist infrastructure,” he added.

Ra’am party head MK Mansour Abbas at the Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Concerns over civil liberties were a primary concern for Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas, who said the judicial system is the “primary protection” for Israel’s Arab minority and that its independence cannot be harmed.

“Arab society is in the minority and to this point, the primary protection for this society has been the judicial system. And thus a reform that hurts the judicial system’s independence, its ability to balance the Knesset and the government, will definitely hurt the standing and rights and the future of the Arab society,” the Islamist party chief said, in Abbas’s most public Hebrew-language statement yet on the judicial overhaul.

Abbas, who in 2021 made Ra’am the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli coalition, asked the current hard-right government to “sit around a discussion table on the basis of the president’s framework, which is a good and accepted basis that is possible to start from.”

“We aspire to be part of a broad agreement that will be a basis for a shared future,” he added.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman also expressed concern that the government plan could harm the nation’s shared future, arguing that the ultra-Orthodox parties were gaining too much influence in Israel.

“If we do not separate religion and state, we will not have a state,” he said.

“Today it is clear that the main engine for all this crazy legislation, the most rigid, the most extreme element that is not ready for any compromise, are the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties,” Liberman said, singling out the coalition’s two Haredi factions. “Their belligerent conduct in the Knesset leads to damage to the State of Israel, the IDF and Judaism.”

UTJ in particular has put pressure on the coalition to pass a mechanism to override High Court rulings, as part of a years-long battle to reinstate blanket military exemptions for Haredi yeshiva students.

UTJ MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman, a stalwart on the secular right wing, previously caused a government to topple, leaving it while fighting ultra-Orthodox parties on issues of enlistment and broader burden-sharing in Israeli society.

Representing the opposition’s smallest and most left-leaning Zionist party, Labor leader Merav Michaeli accused the coalition of pushing Israel towards “civil war” with its plan.

She accused the coalition of “inciting, lying, legislating unilaterally and destructively and inciting us against each other. And these are not the citizens who do it, they do it — politicians who care solely for themselves, for their seat, for their corruption, for which they are willing to sacrifice all of us.”

“This coup is good only for those in power, those who will suffer from it are first and foremost citizens, from the right and the left,” she concluded.

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