'I am sure we will win; we are on the right side of history'

Predicting dictatorship, ex-PM Barak says citizens may need to disobey leaders

Likud files police complaint against former premier, defense minister and chief of staff, who says danger to Israeli democracy from judicial overhaul push is ‘immediate and real’

Former PM Ehud Barak speaks at a conference hosted by Haaretz, February 23, 2023. (Screenshot via YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Former PM Ehud Barak speaks at a conference hosted by Haaretz, February 23, 2023. (Screenshot via YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Former prime minister Ehud Barak warned on Thursday that Israel was weeks away from descending into a dictatorship due to the hardline government’s push to upend the judiciary, adding that people would be duty-bound to refuse orders by “an illegitimate regime.”

Speaking at a conference hosted by the left-leaning Israeli news daily Haaretz, Barak, a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff, said Israel was facing “the gravest” national crisis since the outbreak of war in 1948 after it declared its independence, and now risked becoming a “de facto dictatorship” if the hard-right coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu completes its plans to impose radical, sweeping changes to the judiciary system.

These include granting itself total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, all but eliminating the High Court’s ability to review and strike down legislation, and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers. The plans have spurred mass weekly protests in major cities, alarmed warnings from economists, legal professionals and tech entrepreneurs inside and outside Israel, and fierce criticism from the opposition.

After the Knesset passed initial votes on the legislation on Tuesday, marking the first significant steps in its divisive effort to shake up the judiciary, the shekel depreciated to the weakest level in three years against the US dollar and Tel Aviv shares declined. Warnings from the country’s top economic figures about the potentially significant economic fallout followed on Thursday, but Netanyahu and other top officials continued to brush the predictions aside.

Barak, a fierce critic of Netanyahu and of the overhaul to the judiciary, said the “danger [is] immediate and real” and that it may “take two weeks, three weeks to turn us essentially into a de facto dictatorship like Hungary or Poland.”

Following Barak’s comments, the Likud party filed a complaint against him with the police, accusing him of “incitement to violence, publishing calls to violence and harming the government and public order in the country.”

Likud has repeatedly tried to silence critics — including former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai — of the judicial reform plan by filing incitement complaints against them.

One lawmaker in Netanyahu’s party called for Barak to be jailed for the remarks.

“He should sit in prison. There’s no doubt he’s lost it,” Likud MK Tally Gotliv said Friday in an interview with Channel 13 news.

Earlier this month, Barak likened President Isaac Herzog’s proposal to the government for compromise on the judicial plan to former British premier Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement efforts vis-à-vis Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, in a post to social media he later deleted.

“There’s no dialogue with a gun to your temple,” he said Thursday. “There’s no discussion to be had with this government based on its behavior; it spat on the Israeli president; they mock all of us.”

He accused the Netanyahu government of pursuing a “coup d’état” and said the overhaul plan was an “attack on the Declaration of Independence” and did not serve the interests of the public or the country.

“It is in the interest of someone who’s been accused [of crimes] and a group of criminals who’ve already been indicted, [and they] are being extorted by a group of crazy messianics,” said Barak, in reference to Netanyahu and his ongoing criminal trial on graft charges, as well as members of his coalition like Shas leader Aryeh Deri, and far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.

Critics have long accused Netanyahu and allied lawmakers of seeking to overhaul the court system in order for the prime minister to wriggle out of criminal corruption charges leveled against him in three separate cases. He denies wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated in an attempted political coup led by the police, the state prosecution, the media, and leftist rivals.

Barak, a former leader of the center-left Labor party, likened the judicial makeover to the threat posed by allied Arab forces against the fledgling state in 1948.

“Now, the threat comes from inside,” he said, again rejecting any proposed compromises to the plans.

In contrast to his angry denunciations of the government, Barak praised citizens who are rising up against “this effort to crush the judiciary.”

Israelis “do not intend to submit to the dictatorship,” he said.

Just as when soldiers learn during their service when to refuse orders, civilians can learn “when it is not just the soldier’s right not to carry out [the order], it is [their] duty,” said Barak.

“We have a contract with liberal democracy, as defined in the Declaration of Independence, and do not — and cannot — have a contract with any dictator. In the test of history, the world records those in dictatorships who obeyed the orders, and those who gave the orders.”

But Barak also said he was confident Israel would not turn into a dictatorship, even if the struggle to prevent this turn of events lasts for years.

“The citizens will have to take care of this on behalf of those who failed and who claimed to represent us,” he said, claiming that history proves that a persistent protest movement drawing 3.5 percent of a population is enough to topple a government.

“I don’t know what damage this will do down the road,” Barak said, “but I am sure we will win because we are on the right side of history and are not afraid of anything or anyone.”

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