Netanyahu: Israeli judicial reform to advance, 'moderately, responsibly'

Leaders of the protest groups against the Israeli judicial overhaul vowed to meet Netanyahu's threats with protests and disruptions.

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023.  (photo credit: AMIT SHABI/POOL)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023.
(photo credit: AMIT SHABI/POOL)

Israel's government will begin this week to advance "practical steps" to "fix" the country's judicial system after opposition leader and Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid and National Unity chairman MK Benny Gantz "proved" last week that the talks at the President's Residence had been a "smokescreen," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of the cabinet's weekly meeting on Sunday morning.

"Last week it was proven that Lapid and Gantz played a game. It was a smokescreen of pretend-dialogue. We gave a month and then another, and their representatives did not agree to minimal understanding. Their intention was to waste time and delay every amendment, while a large majority of the public believes that there needs to be changes in the judicial system. Therefore, this week we will convene and begin practical steps in a balanced and responsible manner, but according to the mandate that we received, to change the judicial system," the prime minister said.

Lapid responded soon after on Twitter.

"If Netanyahu advances with the judicial overhaul one-sidedly as he proclaimed, he will discover that he is a prime minister of less than half of the people of Israel, with less than half of the economy, less than half of the security and less than half of the Knesset," the opposition leader wrote.

Protesters vow to meet Israeli judicial reform with protests, disruptions

Leaders of the protest groups against the judicial overhaul said in a statement, "Netanyahu's threats against the judicial system will be met with an appropriate Zionist response: Protests and disruptions that will lead to the failure of every attempt to damage the judicial system and Israeli democracy.

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023. (credit: AMIT SHABI/POOL)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023. (credit: AMIT SHABI/POOL)

"Netanyahu announced that Israel will become a dictatorship and led to severe damage to the economy, a schism in the nation and additional systemic madness. We are ready for the next round – and Israeli democracy will win!" the protest groups said.

Netanyahu's comments came after Lapid and Gantz announced on Wednesday evening that they would not continue the talks at the President's Residence until Israel's Judicial Selection Committee forms. The Knesset was supposed to choose both of its representatives on the committee on Wednesday, but the prime minister decided at the last minute to attempt to delay the vote for a month. He was only partially successful, as opposition candidate MK Karine Elharrar (Yesh Atid) was appointed to the committee with at least four votes from the coalition. The second spot was not occupied and a repeat vote must be held by July 14 for that spot.

Gantz responded to Netanyahu later on Sunday at the conclusion of a tour in the southern Bedouin city Rahat.

"Last week, Netanyahu showed national lack of responsibility and tried to damage the ability to arrive at agreements. He failed, and not for the first time. Netanyahu surely knows what the meaning is of repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

If Netanyahu decides to go for one-sided legislation and again do the same aggressive and destructive act, he will harm democracy, the Israeli public, the economy and security. And after all this – he will also fail. He will not have a majority amongst the people, nor in the Knesset. I recommend that instead of threatening, he should fulfil [promises] – to fulfil his promise to the president and complete the process of the Judicial Selection Committee, to fulfil a promise to the people of Israel and reach agreements. If there will be one-sided legislation there will be no dialogue," Gantz said.

Netanyahu convened a meeting on Sunday evening with Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Ministerial Liaison to the Knesset and Minister in the Justice Ministry Dudi Amsalem, and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, in order to discuss the steps to begin legislation of parts of the reform.

These will likely include two issues that the sides reportedly agreed on – defining the court's use of the "reasonableness factor" when evaluating government policies, and enabling ministers to use their own representation in court in challenges against their policies, when the attorney-general sides with the challengers.

Central Israeli stock indices, which opened the day week with increases, dipped noticeably after the prime minister's announcement that he was going to launch one-sided legislation.

Tension remained high in the coalition after Wednesday's Knesset vote for the Judicial Selection Committee.

Senior coalition officials leaked to the press that the coalition was considering appointing a Shas member to the Judicial Selection Committee rather than Otzma Yedhuit MK Yizhak Kreuzer, despite the coalition agreements between the Likud and Otzma Yehudit that promise the latter a spot on the committee, and Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir announcing over a week ago that his candidate would be Kreuzer.

According to the coalition sources, "The assessment is that the Shas member will pass smoothly and won't spark opposition that would lead to an undesirable result."

The leak kicked off a public spat between Shas and Otzma Yehudit, who tried in response to torpedo a bill by Shas to push off the to delay the vote for the country's chief rabbis for half a year.

The two parties went after each other in anonymous briefings to the press by "senior" members.

"Ben-Gvir is the biggest failure in the government, and Otzma Yehudit is the weak link in the country's leadership," a "senior Shas member" said to the haredi Kikar Hashabat website.

"They tried this time to take a ride on the backs of the chief rabbis – they will not succeed. The law will pass in the plenum. This is not about pita bread for prisoners, but a critical concern of corruption" if the chief rabbis become political chips in October's municipal election, the Shas member added, in reference to the reason for the postponement of the chief rabbi election.

Channel 12's Amit Segal quoted a "senior member of Otzma Yehudit" as saying that Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri was "harming" the judicial reform for his own purposes.

"From the first moment, what interests him is only reasonableness, reasonableness, reasonableness," the Otzma Yehudit member said, in reference to a part of the reform that would limit the court's use of the "reasonableness factor." This part of the reform could possibly pave Deri's path back to the government, after the Supreme Court forced Netanyahu to fire him using the reasonableness factor.

"The reasonableness factor is important, but the Judicial Selection Committee is more important, and I would not be surprised if his people voted for Elharrar only to cooperate with the Left," the Otzma Yehudit member said, echoing a claim by Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman on Saturday that Elharrar's election was the outcome of a secret deal between Lapid and Gantz on one hand and Netanyahu and Deri on the other.

Maariv even quoted "officials in the Likud" as criticizing Deri that "the only thing on Deri's agenda is getting himself back into the government. What good is an unnecessary front now against Ben-Gvir? If the government falls over Deri's personal caprices, he will pay in the ballot box," the officials said.

The Likud put out a statement denying the quotes by Maariv, calling them "complete fake" and saying that "the prime minister respects Deri very much and the relationship between them is close and tight as ever."

Another storm arose earlier on Sunday after Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu (Otzma Yehudit) said on Kol Berama Radio that Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron is a "savage" for "speaking badly about Israel in the world" and should be "kicked down the stairs."

The comment drew condemnations across the aisle.

Netanyahu wrote on Twitter, "I forcefully condemn minister Amichai Eliyahu's comments against the Bank of Israel governor, a dedicated public servant who does his job in good faith for the benefit of Israel's economy and Israeli citizens."

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich wrote on Twitter, "The remark about the governor is not worthy and is out of place. Even if there is legitimate criticism, it is important that it be professional and respectful. As finance minister I give full backing to the governor to continue acting and conducting his professional work in managing the monetary policy out of complete independence for the benefit of Israel's economy."

Health Minister and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (Shas) said, "The crass and unworthy comments that minister Amichai Eliyahu said against the Bank of Israel Governor are out of place. The independence of the Bank of Israel governor and his duty to present economic forecasts accurately is a foundational element of the state of Israel's economic resilience, and I call on minister Eliyahu to take back his words.