As PM endorses judicial overhaul, Gantz urges mass protest to ‘make country tremble’

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued on Monday to defend the sweeping judicial reform his Likud party is leading as a necessary and publicly endorsed move to rebalance political and judicial power, key opposition figures called on Israelis to take to the streets to fight against what they called democracy-destroying measures.

“What we are trying to do is return Israel to the correct balance” between political and judicial authorities, Netanyahu said, claiming that his government’s reforms will divide Israel’s powers in a manner similar to those 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.

Speaking at the outset of Likud’s weekly Knesset faction meeting, Netanyahu added that “we got a clear mandate from the public to execute” plans his coalition previewed during elections, including judicial reform. “We are not afraid of the one-sided media campaign against us,” he added.

But Benny Gantz, who leads the center-right opposition National Unity party, told his faction meeting that the government’s judicial reform plan will lead to “civil war.” Urging the public to lawfully take to the streets, he added, “It’s time to go out en masse and demonstrate; it’s time to make the country tremble.”

Echoing Gantz’s harsh criticism of the government’s judicial overhaul plan, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid warned that “this is extreme regime change” and that the reforms are “eliminating democracy.” Lapid, speaking at the start of his centrist Yesh Atid party’s Monday faction meeting, promised to keep fighting in the streets in what he called “a war over our home.”

Last Wednesday, Netanyahu ally Justice Minister Yariv Levin unveiled what Levin called the first phase of the government’s deep reform plan, which includes creating an override mechanism for the Knesset to reinstate laws invalidated by the court, placing political control over judicial appointments, removing the court’s power to discuss the “reasonableness” of government decisions, and curtailing the independence of government legal advisers.

National Unity party head Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 9, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With a majority of 64 of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers in their right-religious coalition, Netanyahu, Justice Minister Levin, and their coalition partners have promised to advance their reform agenda despite a fusillade of criticism from the attorney general, past Supreme Court justices, and opposition politicians, who all warn that the changes will harm democracy and endanger civil liberties.

“If you continue on the path you are on, you will be responsible for civil war in Israeli society,” Gantz said in comments directed at the government. The former defense minister added that the judicial overhaul plan “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.”

Alluding to concerns that Netanyahu’s desire to end his ongoing corruption trial has pushed his Likud party to pursue judicial reform, Gantz warned that such moves will leave the country “democratically hobbled.”

“If you believe that a legal injustice has been done to you, do not correct it with injustice to the State of Israel and to Israeli society. This is an anti-patriotic and anti-Zionist act,” he added in a personal appeal to Netanyahu.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Gantz said “liberal right-wingers, who love the state,” should be “the first to go out and protest” for what they believe in — “not against Netanyahu or against the government, but against the demolition of democracy and this unbridled, destructive move.”

Responding to Gantz, Netanyahu accused his former political partner of “planting the seeds of disaster” by calling the public out to the streets, while not condemning protesters who compared Netanyahu’s government to Nazis.

“I heard what MK Gantz said and I have to say that I’m shocked,” Netanyahu was seen saying during the faction meeting, in a clip released by a Likud spokesperson. He added that Gantz’s statements were “a call to sedition from the Knesset.”

A large Saturday evening Tel Aviv protest against the government’s judicial reform platform included placards comparing the government and the justice minister to Nazis, behavior that Gantz has yet to publicly condemn.

“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. I call on you, Benny Gantz, take it back, immediately,” Netanyahu added.

Placards blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) for political violence and likening Justice Minister Yariv Levin (C) and their government to Nazis at a Tel Aviv political protest, January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu ally Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich also pushed back against opposition politicians who accused his camp of inciting civil war, maintaining that the government’s judicial reform plan aims to “strengthen Israeli democracy” and restore public trust in the courts.

Speaking minutes after Gantz warned that the judicial reform plan set out 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.”

Speaking at the outset of his far-right Religious Zionism party’s faction meeting, Smotrich urged that “everyone cease the inflammatory and inciting discourse at once.”

“From time immemorial, then and now, the nationalist camp has said no to civil war,” he added.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset’s influential Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, is a key figure in pushing the coalition’s judicial reform plan spearheaded by Levin.

Reaffirming past statements on the matter, Lapid said that the judicial reform package “is extreme regime change, it is canceling the Declaration of Independence, it is cutting Israel off from the family of liberal nations.”

“A country in which the government can do anything is not a democracy,” the opposition leader added. “A government that, in the course of one morning, cancels all the checks and balances that exist in power is not a democracy.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Assailing the government’s plan to give politicians ultimate control over appointments to the bench, National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar, the former justice minister, warned that “ulterior motives and political considerations” will now determine the identity of Israel’s judges.

“Every judge will know whom he owes and every litigator coming before him will also know who holds the debt,” he added. “This is a surefire way to corrupt our judicial system.”

As justice minister, Sa’ar increased panel transparency by making the Judicial Selection Committee’s public hearings. Previously, as a Likud MK, he balanced appointment power between politicians and professional representatives.

Sa’ar also said that override clause allowing the Knesset to re-legislate laws struck down by the High Court — the centerpiece of the government’s judicial reform plan — should require a “special majority,” although he did not set out a specific number.

Striking a similar line to his party leader Gantz, whose proposal to create an across-the-aisle judicial reform package was rebuffed by the government, Sa’ar added that “it is certainly possible to regulate the relationship between the powers” through the Basic Law that undergirds the judiciary.

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