'Stop the whole process, take a deep breath, allow dialogue'

President urges pause to judicial shakeup; Levin: I’m not stopping ‘for a minute’

Herzog pleads for compromise, says Israel in a ‘very volatile moment’; justice minister argues attorney general’s legal opinion warning of damage to democracy ‘doesn’t hold water’

Composite image. Left: President Isaac Herzog at the Ashmoret conference in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Right: Justice Minister Yariv Levin in attendance at a hearing of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Composite image. Left: President Isaac Herzog at the Ashmoret conference in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90) Right: Justice Minister Yariv Levin in attendance at a hearing of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Sunday shrugged off calls to slow the advance of his controversial legal overhaul proposals, even as President Isaac Herzog joined for the first time those saying legislation should be halted in order to allow negotiations for a broadly agreed-upon reform.

Speaking to Channel 13, Levin said the legislation would not be halted “even for a minute.”

After Levin’s interview aired, Herzog reiterated his calls to calm public discourse around the plans.

“Stop the whole process for a moment, take a deep breath, allow dialogue to take place, because there is a huge majority of the nation that wants dialogue,” the president said during an event for IDF soldiers at his official residence in Jerusalem.

He added: “When I see people are threatening to murder the prime minister… it’s a terrible thing that needs to be eliminated and the stain removed. One mustn’t use these types of expressions in the discussion. The debate is heating up to a dangerous place, and I call from here on all those involved in the disagreement: stop a moment, breathe.”

“I say this from a place of historical responsibility. I hear that people and public leaders are called names in public and compared to Nazis. People forget what the Holocaust was when they casually use the term ‘Nazi.’”

National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on January 30, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said Sunday that he rejects any form of incitement against Netanyahu.

“I wholeheartedly reject any incitement or call to violence,” he said an interview with Channel 13. Directly addressing Netanyahu, Gantz said on TV, “Netanyahu, I oppose such things, and it’s unfortunate you didn’t say such statements clearly more than two decades ago” — a likely reference to the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

In the interview, Gantz reiterated that he supports dialogue and broad discussion over possible judicial reform, but believes that the current plan has no redeeming merits.

“From everything that I have heard so far, there is not one item in the judicial reform that serves the citizen, all it contains is ways to give the government and the Knesset more power against the judicial system,” Gantz said. “Netanyahu has no legitimacy to change the form of government in Israel — this is what we’re fighting for.”

On Sunday, police questioned former air force pilot and prominent anti-Netanyahu protester Zeev Raz over comments in which he appeared to justify the potential assassination of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

They also questioned prominent lawyer David Hodek, who told an Israel Bar Association conference last week he would fight the government “with live fire” if the proposals came to pass. He later walked back the comments, saying he “opposes violence.”

File: President Isaac Herzog at the Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, December 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Herzog’s comments also came days after former prime minister Ehud Barak shared an image comparing Herzog — who has been urging dialogue in an effort to forge a compromise — to former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement of the Nazis, which, by implication, equates Netanyahu’s new government to Nazi Germany. Barak later apologized for the comparison.

Channel 13 reported last week that Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut had urged Netanyahu to pause the plans and allow a mediation process. He was said to refuse.

On Sunday, Kan news reported that Hayut has turned down a request to appear before the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to discuss the reforms. According to the Ynet news site, the Supreme Court president has also indicated that she will skip a Monday ceremony in the Knesset in honor of the holiday of Tu Bishvat.

The coalition led by Netanyahu has been pushing a dramatic overhaul that would increase government control over the judiciary, allow it to override court decisions with the barest majority, and give it full power over judicial appointments.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost complete power to the executive branch, and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a legal conference in Haifa on January 12, 2023. (Shir Torem/ Flash90)

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Thursday published a searing position paper saying Levin’s reforms would “fundamentally change the democratic nature of the state’s governance.”

The justice minister dismissed the document in his conversation with Channel 13, claiming its contentions “don’t hold water.”

“Really, the attorney general did exactly what we object to — instead of advising, she decided that the reform was unacceptable to her and shot it down.”

Trying to put “spokes in our wheels won’t help,” said Levin, adding that “the reforms are fundamental, affecting the important elements of a democratic regime.”

Levin stated that he was open to discussions and certain compromises on the proposals, but that there was not “a single responsible MK in the opposition” with  whom to hold talks.

He also insisted that any discussion on the proposals should be conducted in the Knesset, in full view of the public, and not behind closed doors. “It would be unacceptable.”

Levin also addressed reports from last week — which the attorney general has denied — that Baharav-Miara was considering ordering Netanyahu to step down over a potential conflict of interest between his government’s legal reforms and the prime minister’s ongoing graft trials.

Levin told Channel 13 the move would represent an “abyss like no other. It’s the seizure of power by force, there’s no other way to say it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There were elections and Netanyahu was elected to head the government. Asking him to take a leave of absence won’t happen, it’s a threat that won’t happen. There’s no difference between that and pointing tanks at the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Following the reports, the heads of the coalition parties wrote a letter to the attorney general, warning her that such a move would be tantamount to a coup.

“An attempt to declare or announce such a move for an incumbent leader is a clearly illegal attempt to depose and overthrow an elected and legal government, without an iota of justification by the law,” the letter warned.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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