Labor head Michaeli vows no negotiations on overhaul

PM says protests won’t deter judicial push as Gantz presses for compromise talks

Netanyahu claims electorate knew of future government’s plans to rejigger balance between governing branches; Lapid: ‘Voters weren’t told Israel will cease being a democracy’

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the outset of Likud's Knesset faction meeting, January 16, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the outset of Likud's Knesset faction meeting, January 16, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Strenuously backing his government’s deep judicial reform plan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that the push would not be derailed by protests against many of its core tenets, just two days after an estimated 100,000 Israelis nationwide took to the streets to rally against Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposal.

Speaking at the outset of his Likud party’s Knesset faction meeting, Netanyahu said that his government was determined to pass its judicial reform agenda and was “not deterred by the protests.”

“Just like we haven’t been deterred by attacks from the left and media, we won’t be dissuaded this time,” Netanyahu says, accusing the media of “superficial” and “one-sided” coverage of the issue.

Meanwhile, National Unity party head Benny Gantz renewed his call for opposition lawmakers to engage with the government on its ambitious judicial reform plan, but warned that he sought true negotiations over its contours, vowing not to be a fig leaf for a process that critics have described as tantamount to a coup against democracy.

“I am again calling for the establishment of working teams that will put before the Knesset a proper and broad reform, including additional layers on top of the existing ones,” Gantz said at the outset of his own party’s Knesset faction meeting.

But he added that “our outstretched hand does not come to kosher Israel’s regime change in exchange for cosmetic fixes. If there is no profound change that expresses broad agreement and the preservation of Israel as a substantial democracy with separation of powers and judicial review — there will be no agreements at all.”

MK Benny Gantz speaks at the outset of National Unity’s Knesset faction meeting, January 16, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Neither side will come out with all that it wanted – but the entire State of Israel will benefit if we succeed,” he added.

The judicial overhaul proposed by Levin last week would severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down laws and allow the Knesset to re-enact legislation that the court has struck down. It would also give the coalition control over judges’ appointments and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers. Proponents say the changes are needed to rein in a judiciary undermining the will of the people, while critics argue that it would remove an essential check on legislative and executive power, gutting democratic elements of the governing system.

Gantz is partnered politically with former justice minister Gideon Sa’ar, a right-wing ideologue who has said he backs some reforms to the current judicial system, but would not go as far as Levin’s proposals.

Levin, a close Netanyahu ally, has previously shrugged off Gantz’s offers to moderate the reforms with opposition input. No other opposition leader has publicly pushed to collaborate on reform, but opposition leader Yair Lapid was reportedly set to meet President Isaac Herzog on Monday, after Herzog said he was attempting to mediate on the issue between the coalition and opposition.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli said that her four-person faction will not negotiate with the government in a bid to temper its judicial reform platform, and instead take the fight to the streets.

“You don’t negotiate with any defendant who wants to crush the judicial system that judges it, that’s just the way it is,” Michaeli declared at the outset of Labor’s faction meeting, referring to Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.

While pushes to reform some parts of the judiciary predated Netanyahu’s criminal investigation and subsequent indictment, expressions of mistrust in the judicial system from Likud and its voter base have heated up in the aftermath of what they have called a witch hunt against their longtime leader.

Last week, Gantz called for Israelis to take to the streets to lawfully protest the government’s plan to water down the judiciary, among other sweeping reforms. On Saturday, Gantz and several other opposition leaders joined about 80,000 protesters at a Tel Aviv rally, although Lapid was notably absent. Thousands also protested elsewhere.

Netanyahu dismissed the Saturday evening protests and said the November 1 elections, which saw his Likud party and far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies win a majority of Knesset seats, gave his government a mandate for judicial reform.

Gantz said that elections did not give the government a “blank check” to upend democracy.

“Concerned citizens deserve to be treated with respect from the prime minister who, even if most of them did not elect him, is their prime minister. Instead, they are delegitimized and belittled,” the National Unity party leader said.

Drawing on Zionist figure Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a particular hero within Likud circles, Gantz called for lawful protests to continue.

“Silence is not just ‘despicable,’ as Jabotinsky wrote. Rather, silence means surrendering what the founders of the state built, and we will not stay silent about it even for a moment,” said Gantz.

Lapid said at his own faction meeting that Saturday night’s mass protest in Tel Aviv “is just the beginning — they won’t stop us.”

MK Yair Lapid speaks at the outset of Yesh Atid’s Knesset faction meeting, January 16, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Gantz and Lapid also challenged Netanyahu’s claim that Likud and its partners had accurately telegraphed their reform plans before the election, and that the government had been awarded broad leeway to enact them given its win at the polls.

“No one needs to be surprised. What we said before the election — we’re doing, and will do, after the election,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu never spelled out concrete judicial reform proposals during the campaign, but says he expressed support for now-Justice Minister Levin’s reforms shortly before Israelis cast their ballots. Levin and other Likud lawmakers had pitched several reforms in the past, but the party did not specify until the past two weeks what it meant by judicial reform, which includes several proposals to make parliament supreme to the judicial system.

Only the Religious Zionism party presented a comprehensive judicial reform platform to voters.

Netanyahu reaffirmed his stance that this would reinstate a “correct balance” between the various authorities in the public sector. He also claimed that increasing political control over the judiciary would put Israel more in line with other Western democracies, such as the United States, where politicians choose Supreme Court justices.

“We are trying to align with all of the democracies in the world” through the reform package.

“We’ll do it for the benefit of all Israeli citizens,” the premier said. In his remarks, he did not answer criticisms from prominent jurists, civil society groups, and opposition politicians that raising the government over the courts may endanger civil liberties.

Labor party head Merav Michaeli leads her faction meeting at the Knesset, January 16, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Lapid accused Netanyahu of hiding how extreme his coalition’s plans were for vastly reshaping the judicial system.

“They didn’t present the reform to voters,” he asserted at Yesh Atid’s faction meeting. “They didn’t say how extreme it would be. They stammered every time they were asked about it during the election. They didn’t tell voters that Israel will cease being a democracy. They didn’t tell voters that they would irreversibly destroy the Supreme Court.”

Rather, Lapid claimed, “they are doing what they do best: lies and trying to confuse everyone” in an effort to keep Netanyahu out of prison and allow convicted criminal Shas leader Aryeh Deri to become a minister.

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