Netanyahu Defiant on Plan To Overhaul Israel’s High Court

In an address to the nation, the premier stops short of promising to pull the plug on legislation that has angered opposition politicians and spurred protests.

AP/Ariel Schalit
Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, at Beit Beit Yanai interchange, March 23, 2023. AP/Ariel Schalit

Taking the reins in a dispute that is tearing Israel apart, a defiant Prime Minister Netanyahu is vowing to do everything in his powers to reach a compromise on judicial reform. Yet, he stopped short of promising to pull the plug on legislation that has angered opposition politicians and spurred protests.   

In a televised speech to the nation Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu declared himself free of “absurd” restraints imposed by the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, which banned him from publicly addressing the legislation to overhaul the judicial system. Now, “I’m all in,” he said, promising to “put aside everything else” to find a solution that would satisfy all sides.  

He vowed to listen to the opposition, and specifically to address one of their top concerns by pushing legislation akin to America’s Bill of Rights. “We will secure personal rights to all,” he said, promising to legislate a basic law in that regard. 

Opposition leaders were unimpressed. “We will continue to fight in the Knesset, in the streets, in the court for a Jewish, democratic and strong Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor, now heading the largest opposition Knesset party, Yair Lapid, tweeted. He wrote that Mr. Netanyahu’s speech was full of lies. 

Following many unconfirmed reports indicating Mr. Netanyahu would halt the legislation, the premier delivered a speech that was not meant to appease Mr. Lapid. Rather, he was hoping to convince other members of the opposition, as well as doubters in his own party, that a solution is possible. 

Earlier in the day, Mr. Netanyahu’s defense minister, Yoav Galant, planned to make a public announcement and warn that a widening protest against the legislation could harm Israel’s security. Following a meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, though, Mr. Galant scratched his plan, apparently after receiving some assurances from the premier. 

In recent days Mr. Galant — as well as the Israeli Defense Force’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kokhavi, and the head of the internal security service, Ronen Bar — warned Mr. Netanyahu that the legislation is harming Israel’s ability to face security challenges. Army reservists, including some who may be called to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, are skipping training sessions in protest against the judiciary proposal. 

“An Israeli defense minister must ensure the IDF stands ready to counter a range of threats,” a former adviser to President Trump who is a hawkish supporter of Israel, Richard Goldberg, tweeted. “Terrorism in West Bank is out of control. Military action against Iran may be close. The implications are enormous. Galant is a supporter of judicial reform but must warn of dangers ahead.” 

As signs grew that Mr. Netanyahu may heed his security advisers’ advice and halt the legislation drive, the justice minister, Yaris Levin, and a Knesset member, Simcha Rotman, threatened a pushback. Mr. Levin reportedly hinted he would resign if the legislative process is halted. Top right-wingers indicated they would exit Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, leaving him with no Knesset majority. 

As Mr. Netanayhu attempted to thread the needle and satisfy coalition partners, his speech was seen by some as an attempt to lure in some members of the opposition. One such member, Benny Gantz, a former defense minister, was more cautious than Mr. Lapid in responding to Mr. Netanyahu’s address. 

While taking the premier to task over his failure to halt the legislation, Mr. Gantz nevertheless tweeted that Mr. Netanyahu should now “stop, and we’ll talk. In having a dialogue there are no losers — there is only one winner, the State of Israel.”

That was also what Mr. Netanyahu proposed in his speech, stressing that “those who oppose the reform are not ‘traitors,’ and those who support it aren’t ‘fascists.’” He added that he believes “it is possible to pass a reform that would be accepted by both sides,” while accusing the opposition of failing to negotiate.

Earlier, one of the premier’s top advisers, his wife Sara, called for “broad agreement among the people of Israel.” Yet, fissures within the coalition would make it difficult for Mr. Netanyahu to significantly compromise on any part of the legislation.

While Mr. Netanyahu has been indicted in connection to several alleged crimes, including bribery, Ms. Baharav-Miara barred the premier’s participation in the judicial reform legislation, arguing it risks a conflict of interest.

Yet, on Wednesday night the Knesset passed a bill to make it harder than in the past to declare a premier ineligible to rule. Mr. Netanyahu saw that as freeing him from the constraint. The attorney general is yet to comment on whether she agrees.

That potential clash, as well as the possibility of the Knesset passing legislation while the Supreme Court bars enacting it, illustrate the tensions between the legislative and judicial branches, which is tearing Israel apart. 

“While the Hatfields and the McCoys duke it out, adjudicating their past and present grievances, Israel burns,” a former adviser to several Israeli premiers, Shalom Lipner, wrote before Mr. Natehyhahu’s speech — an address that at least initially failed to stop the bleeding. 


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