(JNS) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday condemned calls by opponents of his government’s judicial reform plan to break the law, and called on them to act responsibly.
“I would like to strongly criticize the calls to break the law, for civil rebellion, to intentionally harm the economy, and even use weapons, by those who oppose government policy,” said Netanyahu. “Red lines cannot be crossed. Red lines have been crossed in recent days by extremist elements that have one goal: To intentionally bring about anarchy.”
His government had received a clear mandate from the people of Israel in a democratic election, he continued.
“Nobody here can deny this. Neither can anyone deny the right to demonstrate. However, there cannot be calls to violence, to act violently, to call for civil rebellion, to compel people to strike who do not want to do so. This is forbidden,” he said.
“I am certain that the vast majority of the citizens of Israel, whether they support the reform or not, oppose this extremism and will not allow the country to fall into anarchy. I call on everyone to lower the tone and begin a substantive dialogue. We have one country and together we will safeguard it.”
Lapid tweeted on Feb. 8, “Employers need to allow every worker who wants to go to Jerusalem to fight for the country, to fight for our democracy and to say that we will not allow you to destroy our democracy.”
Also on Sunday, Justice Minister Yariv Levin accused Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and NGO The Movement for Quality Government in Israel of attempting to carry out a “coup d’etat” against Netanyahu.
“A group of lawyers who do not respect the results of the elections are working to carry out a coup d’état and put Prime Minister Netanyahu in prison,” said Levin.
“It’s no wonder that the partners in this move are the same ones who lead the opposition to the legal reform,” he added, listing Hayut, Baharav-Miara and the aforementioned NGO.
“An attempt to remove a prime minister against the law, while trampling on democratic choice, is no different from a coup carried out with tanks. The intention is the same intention, and the result is the same result,” he said.
Levin’s comments came on the heels of the Supreme Court hearing a petition submitted by the Movement for Quality Government calling for Netanyahu to be declared unfit for office. The petition argues that he is in breach of the Supreme Court’s May 2020 decision that he must avoid conflicts of interest pertaining to his ongoing criminal trial.
The Supreme Court on Friday gave Netanyahu one month to respond to the petition.
Members of Netanyahu’s coalition expressed anger that the court would even hear the petition, arguing that it amounted to an attempted coup.
Conflict of interest
The controversy began on Feb. 2, when Attorney General Baharav-Miara sent a letter to the prime minister ordering him to refrain from involving himself in his government’s judicial reform proposals due to conflict of interest.
The attorney general said her directive applies to “giving direct or indirect guidance through other parties, as far as the promotion of the [judicial reform] initiatives are concerned.
“The application of the limitations established by the [May 2020] High Court of Justice ruling leads to the general conclusion that you must refrain in your role as prime minister from taking part in initiatives touching on the legal system, in the framework of the process termed ‘legal reform,’” her letter stated.
Levin responded at the time, “It turns out that conflict of interest is a strange thing. An elected official is not allowed to talk about reform pertaining to legal advice, but the legal adviser and her team are allowed to act to thwart the reform that directly concerns their powers.”
It is not clear whether Netanyahu will abide by the attorney general’s decision. Levin, in unveiling the “first stage” of his judicial reform plan on Jan. 4, stressed that the legal advisers are “advisers, not deciders, who represent the government, and not their personal positions.” He called for an end to the “subjugation of the government to an unelected rank.”
Part of the judicial reform includes a draft bill being discussed in Knesset committee that would allow ministers to choose whether or not to follow their legal advisers’ opinions.
“Legal advice given to the prime minister and any minister of the government will not bind them. The government, the prime minister and any minister of the government may reject the legal advice and act contrary to it,” the bill’s summary states.
The first part of the judicial reform package goes to the Knesset on Monday. It deals with the selection of judges and the justiciability of Basic Laws, which have a quasi-constitutional status in Israel.
Brink of social collapse
Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Sunday painted a dire picture of the country’s political situation as opposing sides battle over the government’s judicial reform program.
“We are in the midst of fateful days for our nation and for our country,” he said in a televised address. “We have for quite some time now not been in a political debate but on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.
“I feel—we all feel—that we are just before a clash, even a violent clash—a powder keg—and we are on the threshold of one man’s hand against his brother’s,” he added.
Herzog expressed sympathy with both sides of the debate, saying those in favor of reform “feel that an imbalance has developed between the branches [of government] and lines have been crossed for years,” while those against reform see it “as a real threat to Israeli democracy. They fear that the reform in its current form erases and devours all checks and balances.”
To ignore the pain and fears of either side would be “a grave mistake,” he said.
The Israeli president presented five principles as “a basis for immediate and decisive negotiations that will arrange the relations between the government branches.”
He first proposed the passage of a Basic Law: The Constitution that would establish “constitutional stability” by clarifying the relations among the three branches and between various laws. He also said the number of judges must be increased to decrease judicial workload, and the courts must be made to function more efficiently so that cases won’t drag on. And he urged a change in the way judges are selected so that no branch of government has a majority say in choosing them.
In his final principle, Herzog took a position advocated by proponents of reform, arguing against the judicial rationale of “reasonability,” whereby judges can overturn laws based on whether they consider them “reasonable.”
“An unrestricted use of the pretext of reasonableness could become the basis for a disproportionate entry of the judicial authority into the exclusive territory designated for the executive and legislative branches,” he said.
Herzog concluded by saying he’s “ready to do everything…to resolve this difficult dispute,” including appearing before the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee “in an unprecedented and exceptional manner in order to present the proposed principles in depth.”
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