Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on April 10, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Tomer Neuberg-Flash 90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on April 10, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Tomer Neuberg-Flash 90)

In fiery address, Netanyahu doubles down on judicial overhaul while calling for unity

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TEL AVIV (JTA) — In a primetime address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to press on with his government’s effort to weaken Israel’s judiciary, accusing some of the legislation’s opponents of “endangering democracy.”

The nearly 10-minute televised speech came as Netanyahu’s coalition is pushing through a measure that will strip the Supreme Court of the power to strike down government decisions it deems “unreasonable.” The “reasonableness” clause was recently employed to invalidate the cabinet appointment of a close Netanyahu ally who has repeatedly been convicted of crimes.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is set to hold a final vote on the measure early next week. In response, opponents of the judicial overhaul effort have held mass protests, blocked major streets and engaged in other forms of civil disobedience. The overhaul’s critics say sapping the Supreme Court of its power and independence would endanger Israeli democracy by removing a curb on the government’s power.

While he bookended the address with calls for unity, Netanyahu defended legislation overhauling the “reasonableness” clause unequivocally, saying the current legislation is a scaled-back version of the original proposal. He blamed his political opposition for the failure of negotiations that had aimed to create a compromise proposal.

“All this talk of destroying democracy is just absurd,” he said, referring to the claims of the overhaul’s opponents. “This is just an attempt to make you scared of something that has no basis in reality. Fixing the reasonableness clause will only strengthen democracy. It will certainly not endanger democracy.”

This week, hundreds of reservists in the Israel Defense Forces, including doctors as well as more than 100 Air Force officers, pledged to refuse to serve in protest of the overhaul effort. The growing refusal movement has alarmed Israel’s security chiefs — in March, it was part of what prompted Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to call on Netanyahu to pause the legislation. On Wednesday, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said in remarks at a military base that the military has been “based on the reserve system since its inception” and that refusal pledges “harm the IDF.”

The refusal calls appear to have prompted Netanyahu’s speech.

“What will endanger democracy is refusal” to serve, Netanyahu said. “Refusal endangers the security of all of Israel’s citizens. In a democracy, the army is subordinate to the government, not superior to the government.”

The leader of the parliamentary opposition, Yair Lapid, accused Netanyahu of lying in his speech, and said that opposition leaders had also condemned pledges to refuse military service.

“What we saw tonight is a prime minister who is dismantling the state instead of uniting it,” Lapid, a centrist politician who briefly served as prime minister last year, wrote on Twitter. “Who lies instead of telling citizens the truth.”

Lapid added that the legislation Netanyahu is backing is “the erasure of one of the foundations of our democratic system and the destruction of the court and separation of powers.”

Netanyahu’s allies have also invoked the army in controversial ways in support of the overhaul. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, and others shared a video apparently meant to be a critique of the reservists’ refusals. In it, an actor playing a military pilot refuses to provide support to an infantry soldier without first knowing his position on the judicial overhaul. An IDF spokesperson condemned the video as stoking “internal incitement” in the military, according to the Times of Israel.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.