Sa'ar: Gov't will change election rules so they rule forever

Opposition heads vow to boycott final votes on overhaul; PM attacks ‘leftist’ media

Coalition to bring key judicial overhaul provision for first Knesset reading Monday; as legislation speeds ahead, Netanyahu calls for ‘talk’ to ‘try to reach agreements’

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

Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 13, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 13, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Four of the Knesset’s opposition parties said on Monday that they will boycott final votes to pass the government’s judicial overhaul, currently expected before the end of the month.

In a joint statement following a meeting between Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Benny Gantz’s National Unity, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Merav Michaeli’s Labor party, the parties announced that they “will do everything to prevent the passing of the laws, but if God forbid we get to a third reading,” the final vote before a bill becomes a law, “we will not be a part of this and boycott the vote in the plenary.”

Netanyahu again called for dialogue, after spending most of his remarks before a Likud faction meeting railing against “biased” media outlets that criticize his coalition’s plan to upend judicial checks on political power.

The four opposition parties, who met without the opposition’s two Arab factions, stressed that they would not engage in dialogue without a legislative halt in order to not be a “fig leaf” for the process.

Netanyahu’s coalition continues to press its legislative pace, with two of the reform bills slated for first readings in the plenum on Monday, despite ten weeks of public protest against the judicial overhaul. Expected to easily advance, the bills will return to committee in preparation for their second and third readings, often conducted in rapid succession.

The four majority-Jewish opposition parties further clarified that, should President Isaac Herzog present a framework for negotiation on the planned reforms, they would discuss it directly with the president and not engage the coalition — unless their precondition to pause legislation is met.

“When the president’s outline is presented, we will be happy to address his proposal and we appreciate his efforts to reach negotiations,” the statement said, continuing that, “unity of the people begins with real dialogue and as long as there is no halt to legislation, talks are just a deception.”

President Isaac Herzog gives a primetime speech pleading for compromise on the judicial overhaul plan, on March 9, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Herzog has become increasingly publicly critical of the reform, shifting in the past weeks from positioning himself as a facilitator for politician discussions to outright slamming the coalition’s proposal on Thursday as a non-starter that would portend disaster for Israel.

He is expected to present his framework in the coming days, and on Monday continued consultations with academics and legal figures.

A separate, outside team endeavoring to pitch a workable negotiation framework presented its proposal to the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee earlier on Monday. Legal scholar Yuval Elbashan, one of the framework’s backers, said he himself had trouble with some of its proposals. Constitution Committee head Simcha Rothman — who is leading the reform charge alongside Justice Minister Yariv Levin — said that “it could be a basis for negotiation,” but that the “gaps are large” between the proposal and the current set of bills.

While Netanyahu did nod to cross-Knesset and civil society calls to engage in dialogue between the coalition and opposition, noting that it is “the right thing to do is to talk, to try to reach agreements” and that he is “still not giving it up,” the premier focused the bulk of his Monday remarks to attacking reform critics.

Netanyahu blamed “leftist” and “biased” media for drumming up angst, telling reporters at the Likud’s faction meeting that Israel is “witnessing an unprecedented attack by biased media channels against the government, fully mobilized to serve opponents of the reform… disseminating fake news 24/7.”

“For the leftist media, those who refuse to serve are heroes,” he said. “For the leftist media, those who block roads… are freedom fighters.”

Echoing remarks he made before the cabinet’s Sunday meeting, Netanyahu said that a proper democracy is one in which the “elected government is responsible for the army, the police, law and order,” presumably in contrast to being constrained by the judiciary.

Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 13, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Gantz, the opposition’s most bullish voice for compromise, pleaded for Netanyahu to stop the legislation at least until the end of the upcoming Ramadan holiday, which would push the Knesset into its summer session, beginning in late April.

Israel is already increasing ebbs of terror, with a suspected attack that seriously wounded a 21-year-old on Monday and a bloody shooting on Tel Aviv’s popular Dizengoff street on Thursday evening. Security tensions generally peak during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan.

“We must not deteriorate into an irresponsible constitutional crisis during a security crisis. This is a reward for terrorism, it is a danger to the state,” Gantz said.

The former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and recent defense minister asked Netanyahu: “What are we waiting for to stop and talk? Will there be blood in the streets?”

Gantz has also received right-wing criticism for his handling of West Bank building policy, but nodded to the coalition’s own willingness to pause settlement building, but not stop “legislation that severely harms the unity of the people.”

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid charged Netanyahu with having “lost control” of his government and country, amid widespread protests that drew an estimated 500,000 Israelis to the streets on Saturday and fears for Israel’s ties with critical allies.

“The country is falling apart around him and he is unable to do anything,” Lapid said, to open Yesh Atid’s Knesset faction meeting.

Lapid also said that a rift is forming with Israel’s most important ally, as “the Americans simply refuse to help this government.”

Currently, in the United States, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is being snubbed by government officials and civil society, while Netanyahu has not yet been invited to the White House, despite returning to power in late December.

Lapid said that Netanyahu has become “weak” and unable to control his coalition, members of which continue to push for judicial reform and “will dismantle his government if he tries to stop them.”

“A real prime minister – you know what, the prime minister Netanyahu used to be – would knock on the table, stop the regime coup, call for agreements among partners, and tell them, ‘it’s over,’” Lapid added. “But Netanyahu cannot. He is too weak. His speeches are still here, his suits are still here, but he’s incapacitated.”

MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former justice minister Gilad Sa’ar, from Gantz’s National Unity party, meanwhile, warned in an Army Radio interview that once the current overhaul legislation was enacted, the coalition would move to ensure it never loses power.

“Nobody should have any illusions. Once the current [legislation becomes law], that won’t be the end of it. There will be further moves, [including] to change the election rules so that they rule forever… They are seeking a reality in which they can do whatever they want, without any constraints,” said Sa’ar.

Noam party leader MK Avi Maoz seen during a vote in the Knesset, on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Regarding Netanyahu’s slipping control over his coalition, fringe lawmaker Avi Maoz said he and his one-man Noam party will leave the coalition if the government does not create an office for national Jewish identity that was agreed he would head under the coalition agreement.

The MK said on Monday that if the coalition does not meet his demand before passing the state budget by the end of May, he will quit the coalition and “work from the Knesset for the benefit of the public.”

Maoz recently quit his post as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, complaining that the coalition did not intend to create various offices and transfer powers promised to him in sweeping coalition agreements.

If Maoz quits, the government would still have a majority with 63 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

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