Protest leaders slam 'bizarre display by dictator-in-making'

PM: I’ll intervene to make overhaul ‘balanced’ — but judge selection bill will pass

Indicating he’ll ignore conflict of interest deal forbidding involvement, Netanyahu promises protesters to protect individual rights, ensure coalition not given undue power

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the nation on the judicial overhaul on March 23, 2023. (Screen capture)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the nation on the judicial overhaul on March 23, 2023. (Screen capture)

Addressing his government’s judicial shakeup for the first time since he was given legal cover to do so Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government will continue to charge ahead with the plan “responsibly,” while aiming to pass a core tenet of the overhaul next week.

The prime minister attempted to strike a conciliatory tone in his speech, acknowledging that both proponents and opponents of the legislation have valid concerns and saying he would take actions to address both. But he also confirmed that his government will not pause its legislative sprint and will seek to pass next week on one of the most important elements of the plan — a bill to put key Supreme Court appointments directly in coalition control.

“The law that will pass next week in the Knesset is a law that does not control the court — it balances and diversifies it,” he asserted. “It opens the doors of the court to views and publics and vast sectors that hitherto were excluded from it.”

Netanyahu insisted that “we don’t want a controlled court, we want a balanced court.”

Opposition leaders have said they will not negotiate on the shakeup until the coalition takes a legislative pause, and will not engage during the Knesset’s upcoming April break if the judicial appointments law passes first.

In apparent defiance of the attorney general, the prime minister indicated he would henceforth ignore his conflict of interest deal to jump deep into the overhaul legislation hitherto shepherded by Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the cabinet and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman in the Knesset.

The 2020 deal forbade Netanyahu from involving himself in the overhaul due to his ongoing corruption trial. Netanyahu’s announcement came hours after the Knesset passed a law to shield him from being removed from office for breaking its boundaries.

Making overtures to critics of the coalition’s curtailment of judicial authority, the prime minister said a planned bill to allow the government to override High Court rulings will be amended to require a somewhat higher — but unspecified — threshold of votes than the previously announced 61.

On the left: Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara at a welcome ceremony for her in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). On the right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He also vowed to include in the plan action to enshrine protections for individual rights, many of which are currently set to remain unprotected if the court’s powers are curtailed.

“I plan to defend individual rights, I will guarantee the rights of every citizen of Israel,” he said, vowing that “all legislation will be obligated to these [individual right] principles,” and that “we plan to bring detailed legislation on this, I personally will see to it happening.”

He added that by giving elected representatives more control over selecting top court judges, the law should correct reform proponents’ perception that the court is a “closed club.”

“I believe that it’s possible to bring a reform that will give an answer to both sides. A reform that will bring back a proper balance between the branches of government and maintain and strengthen individual rights of each citizen in the state,” he added.

Opposition unconvinced

But if Netanyahu’s speech had been intended to calm or appease the opposition to his government, it quickly became clear it had done nothing of the sort.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid assailed the premier, tweeting shortly after Netanyahu’s remarks that the speech was “disconnected” and “full of lies.”

Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on February 27, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Netanyahu chose tonight to ignore his defense minister, important intelligence that arrived at his table, tens of thousands of reserve soldiers and an economic crisis,” Lapid wrote, adding that Netanyahu’s actions constituted “a lack of national responsibility” and “a blow to state security.”

Anti-government protest organizers said demonstrations would only “intensify.”

“Today we saw a bizarre display by a dictator-in-the-making who, instead of stopping and shelving the legislation, is rushing to appoint judges and engage in a hostile takeover of the Supreme Court,” the organizers said.

“The way to prevent a rift in the nation is to abolish all the laws of the dictatorship. Any calls for negotiations while the legislation advances are illegitimate. ”

National Unity leader Benny Gantz said Netanyahu was failing to “rise to the occasion.”

“But the barrier of silence [in Likud] began to crack today,” he added. Gantz has been holding talks with coalition MKs in Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties, including with Gallant, in a bid to convince them to oppose the legislation in its current form.

“Stop, and we will talk. There are no losers in holding a dialogue, there is only one winner: the State of Israel,” he said.

Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, March 20, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

National Unity’s Gideon Sa’ar said Netanyahu’s speech had “managed to disappoint even those who had no expectations of him.”

Sa’ar, once a Likud stalwart, said the premier had not only announced that he would move ahead with legislation to politicize judicial appointments, but had effectively declared that he would trample the 2020 conflict of interest agreement.

He called the premier’s speech “another missed opportunity that will widen the rift in the nation,” and added that the only answer was to carry on protesting.

Stamping out rebellion

Netanyahu’s remarks were perhaps more noteworthy for their timing than for their content. On Thursday, protests ripped across the nation, with dozens of arrests, limited violence and some aggressive police measures employed against protesters.

On Thursday morning, the Knesset finalized a law to protect Netanyahu from being forced by the High Court into taking a leave of absence.

“Until today my hands were tied,” he said. “So tonight I announce to you, no more.”

Confirming his intention to get actively involved, Netanyahu added that he was, “putting all other issues aside” and “will do everything I can to find a solution for the sake of our people, our state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His comments may have also been designed to mollify senior Likud politician and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had planned to address the nation himself in the evening to reportedly call for legislation to stop, as he believes it is causing serious harm to the military amid burgeoning refusals to serve.

Netanyahu called Gallant in for an urgent meeting, after which Gallant canceled his planned statement and said he was doing so in light of Netanyahu’s planned remarks.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has issued warnings himself over the past few weeks, telling Netanyahu earlier this month that he was worried by the spread of refusal to serve to the point where it “could harm the IDF’s operational capacity.”

Thousands of Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar was also said to warn Netanyahu that Israel was heading into a very dangerous place and presented him “with a very dark” picture of the consequences of the overhaul in a meeting Thursday. “The combination of the security threats and the social situation in the context of the [judicial overhaul] legislation are taking Israel to a dangerous place,” Channel 12 quoted Bar as saying.

When news broke of Gallant’s ostensible plans to challenge the premier on the overhaul, members of Likud lashed him on social media, with numerous MKs warning such action would be a betrayal of the will of right-wing voters. The far-right Otzma Yehudit said Gallant had “removed himself from the right-wing camp” and was trying to cheat voters. One of the party’s lawmakers called him a “trojan horse” in the coalition.

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