With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backing several judicial reforms, former Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the country needs to “tremble” from massive protests, a comment Netanyahu labeled “a call to sedition from within the Knesset.”
Netanyahu described the broad judicial reform the Likud party is leading as a necessary and publicly supported effort to rebalance the political and judicial power in Israel, while key opposition leaders referred to their call for public protests as a “defense of democracy.”
At the opening to Likud’s weekly Knesset faction meeting, the prime minister said, “What we are trying to do is return Israel to the correct balance” between political and judicial authorities.
Netanyahu claimed that his government’s reforms will bring a balance to Israel’s powers similar to the powers in the United States and European countries. The multi-point plan to increase political power over the judiciary “doesn’t destroy democracy” but rather “rehabilitates” it, he said.
According to Netanyahu, the electorate is behind him.
“We got a clear mandate from the public to execute” the plans the coalition previewed during the elections, including judicial reforms, Netanyahu said. “We are not afraid of the one-sided media campaign against us.”
In comments directed at the present government, Gantz said, “If you continue on the path you are on, you will be responsible for civil war in Israeli society.”
He urged his supporters to lawfully take to the streets, adding, “It’s time to go out en masse and demonstrate. It’s time to make the country tremble.”
In line with Gantz’s criticism, opposition leader Yair Lapid warned that “this is an extreme regime change” and that the reforms are “eliminating democracy.”
He promised to keep fighting in the streets in what he called “a war over our home.”
Last Wednesday, Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented what he called the first phase of the government’s judicial reform plan, which creates an override mechanism for the Knesset to reinstate laws invalidated by the court, places political control over judicial appointments, removes the court’s power to discuss the “reasonableness” of government decisions and curtails the independence of government legal advisors.
Netanyahu has 64 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs in his right-wing coalition, which provides him, along with Levin and their coalition partners, with an opportunity to advance their reform agenda. The reforms have attracted criticism from the attorney general’s office, retired Supreme Court justices and opposition politicians, who have all warned that any changes will harm democracy and endanger civil liberties.
Gantz said the projected changes “will have a fatal impact on national security – both in the sense of the resilience of citizens in all segments of society and in the ability of the High Court of Justice and the legal system to be our legal Iron Dome vis-à-vis the world.”
The former defense minister also accused Netanyahu of wanting to change the legal system in order to avoid his own legal problems, which include outstanding corruption charges. He said that this motive pushed Netanyahu’s party to pursue judicial reforms that will leave the country “democratically hobbled.”
At the same time, Netanyahu voiced a complaint that nothing is being done about signs carried in last Saturday’s protest that compared the Israeli government and the new justice minister to Nazis.
“When someone does not condemn the comparison of the justice minister to a Nazi and of the government of Israel to the Third Reich, he is the one planting the seeds of disaster,” Netanyahu said to his faction, clearly upset. “I call on you, Benny Gantz, take it back, immediately.”
Israel’s new Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a Netanyahu ally, also spoke out against the opposition members who accused his camp of inciting civil war, and said that the aim of the government’s judicial reform plan is to “strengthen Israeli democracy” and to restore public trust in the courts.
Responding to Gantz’s charges that the judicial reform plan presented last week would push Israeli society to the brink, Smotrich said, “It is doubly sad when harsh words and threats of civil war come from the highest echelons.”
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.