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Netanyahu pushes forward with judicial reform, defends controversial bill saying it will strengthen democracy

Reasonableness Standard Bill is set to be voted into law on Monday

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a televised address to the nation, July 20, 2023. (Photo: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

In a televised speech on Thursday evening to the Israeli public, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin defended his coalition’s effort to move forward with the controversial judicial reform that has sparked mass protests across the nation.

He claimed that efforts are still being made to reach a broad consensus on changing the wording of the Reasonableness Standard Bill, which is set to be voted into law on Monday and insisted its implementation will not threaten democracy but strengthen it.

“Tonight, I wish to calm all of you: No matter what, Israel will continue to be a democratic state, will continue to be a liberal state,” Netanyahu said. “We all want a Jewish and democratic state, we all want a strong IDF and we all understand that we only have one country. There are natural disputes in every democracy.”

Intense protests continue across the State of Israel as more IDF reservist groups announced they will no longer volunteer for service if the bill is passed. According to Netanyahu, the real threat to democracy was the reservists refusing to carry out their duties.

The prime minister's speech came after U.S. President Joe Biden told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman earlier this week that he had requested Netanyahu refrain from passing any part of the judicial reform without broad consensus.

The speech also followed Knesset Member Benny Gantz's call for the prime minister to re-enter negotiations with the opposition over the reasonableness standard. Gantz, who leads the National Unity party, added that any new dialogue would be conditional upon Netanyahu's pledge that no other parts of the bill would pass without a broad consensus, contrary to Gantz’s original position that the entire reform pass as one agreed-upon package.

“We again call on Netanyahu to accept Gantz’s offer and to return to an outline of broad agreements that will stop the chaos and put Israel back on track to deal with the immense challenges it faces. History won’t forgive someone who chooses petty politics over the benefit of the State of Israel,” the opposition stated.

The coalition reportedly refused the offer and blamed Gantz for leaving the talks and for placing conditions upon his willingness to enter talks regarding concessions.

In his speech, Netanyahu referred to past support from opposition leaders, Knesset Members Yair Lapid and Gideon Sa’ar, for blocking the court’s use of the reasonableness standard.

Netanyahu also claimed the coalition had made numerous offers to the opposition during talks at his residence from April to mid-June, but that each proposal was refused out of fear of the protest movement. 

The prime minister expressed hope that efforts to reach an agreement on the reasonableness standard will succeed.

“But even if they don’t, the coalition’s door will always remain open to you, citizens of Israel, and also to the opposition,” Netanyahu said. 

Not surprisingly, opposition parties slammed the prime minister’s speech and accused him of inciting a civil war in Israel.

“Netanyahu is talking about the need to unify the nation, and in effect is pushing us to an unprecedented historic crisis, on the brink of civil war,” read a statement from Gantz's National Unity party.

Lapid released a video statement in response to Netanyahu's speech.

“What we saw today is a prime minister who is taking apart the country instead of unifying it. Who lies instead of telling the citizens the truth. Completely contrary to the lie you hear tonight, what he put on the table is not a shrinking of the reasonableness standard, but the erasing of one of the pillars of our democratic method and destruction of the court and separation of branches of government,” Lapid said. 

Lapid also referred to the coalition as “the most extreme government in the state’s history” and said it was responsible for the “army collapsing from within." He added that he was willing to resume talks immediately and that the “band of extremists” in the government “do not have a mandate to turn Israel into a messianic and non-democratic state."

The Kaplan Force umbrella protest movement responded to the prime minister's speech, saying: “As is his habit, Netanyahu gives a speech full of lies and incitement. He brings dangerous legislation that puts the entire state of Israel at risk, instead of heeding explicit warnings about the destruction of the army, the economy and a schism amongst the people, instead of wholeness for the country, Netanyahu prefers to attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship. This is the time for civilians to go out and protest.”

The Reasonableness Standard Bill would block Israel’s judiciary from applying the “reasonableness standard” to decisions made by elected officials.

The rewording of the bill currently being negotiated would make it only applicable to decisions made by the cabinet as a whole, which means that appointments or decisions of policy made in the cabinet will not be subject to the “reasonableness standard.” Rather, only decisions made by individual ministers will be subject to this form of judicial review.

Additionally, only government appointments that require the Knesset’s approval will be immune to the reasonableness standard. Appointments that do not require the Knesset’s approval such as director’s general of government ministries or senior bureaucratic positions, will be subject to it.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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