Netanyahu shrugs off protest, says millions of voters demanded judicial overhaul

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday shrugged off an 80,000-strong rally the night before against the government’s contentious plans to remake the judiciary, telling cabinet ministers that the national elections were a bigger display of the public’s will.

Changes in the pipeline include weakening the Supreme Court so that it will not be able to veto legislation and policies deemed unconstitutional, and granting the government control over the panel that selects judges.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the overhaul will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting too much power to the executive branch, and leaving minorities undefended.

“Two months ago there was a huge demonstration, the mother of all demonstrations. Millions of people went into the streets in order to vote in the elections. One of the main topics that they voted on was reforming the judicial system,” Netanyahu said of the November 1 vote, according to a statement from his office.

“Everyone who was at our election rallies, in city centers, and in neighborhoods, heard the voices rising from the crowds,” he said at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, although he did not give a specific example.

“Millions of people went into the streets in order to vote in the elections. One of the main topics that they voted on was reforming the judicial system,” Netanyahu told ministers.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Netanyahu urged against being “swept away by inflammatory slogans about civil war and the destruction of the state.”

He added, “I must say that when we were in the opposition, we did not call for civil war and did not speak about the destruction of the state, even when the government made decisions that we vociferously opposed. I expect the leaders of the opposition to do the same.”

He predicted the changes would “restore the public’s trust in the justice system.”

Rhetoric over the overhauls and pushback against them heated up last week when opposition lawmaker Benny Gantz accused Netanyahu of “leading toward civil war,” and opposition leader Yair Lapid urged his Yesh Atid party’s supporters to take to the streets as part of a “war over our home.”

That prompted a lawmaker of the coalition’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party to call for Gantz and Lapid to be arrested for “treason.”

On Sunday, Likud MK Tali Gotliv said she had asked Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is pioneering the judicial shake-up, to remove Supreme Court President Esther Hayut from her post, citing a conflict of interest.

Gotliv pointed at a speech Hayut gave last week in which she railed against the planned moves, accusing the justice of scaremongering the public with falsehoods, “while expressing a political opinion on a disputed subject.”

President Isaac Herzog meanwhile called on politicians to “lower the temperature” in their discourse on the overhaul. Herzog said Sunday he is working to mediate between the two sides over the coming legislation.

A group of organizers of Saturday’s protest said Sunday they were planning a new rally on January 21, albeit on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv near the government complex that includes the IDF headquarters — instead of at Habima Square — in order to allow for more people to attend in a somewhat less residential area.

“The journey to stop this coup has just begun,” organizers said in a statement. “This is a determined and uncompromising fight to save democracy, and the people of Israel are coming out en masse to protest.”

In a separate statement, however, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, one of the main protest organizers, said it is planning on holding a rally at Habima Square on Saturday night.

“We will continue together to lead and organize this fight for the character and identity of the State of Israel as a democratic and liberal nation,” said Movement for Quality Government head Eliad Shraga. “We will fight in the streets, the squares and on the bridges — in the courts and in the Knesset.”

Transferring authority

The cabinet on Sunday also approved the creation of a Public Diplomacy Ministry to be headed by the newly appointed minister Galit Distel Atbaryan. Likewise, the cabinet approved the installation of May Golan as a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Both moves still require Knesset approval.

Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan arrives to a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ministers also approved the members of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, to be chaired by Levin.

Other members of the forum are National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Minister within the Education Ministry Haim Biton, Minister within the Welfare Ministry Yoav Ben-Tzur, Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, and Diaspora Affairs and Social Equality Minister Amichai Chikli, along with Distel Atbaryan.

Also, approval was given to “transfer of areas of operation and powers from the Education Ministry and the Social Equality Ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office in accordance with the coalition agreements,” the PMO statement said.

According to Channel 12 news, the decision referred to the transfer of external programming for school students from the Education Ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office, where it will be overseen by Deputy Minister Avi Maoz, leader of the far-right anti-LGBTQ Noam party .

Maoz’s appointment as overseer of a key component of students’ curriculum has raised an outpouring of criticism and concern, with numerous local municipalities saying they will not allow the introduction of anti-LGBTQ or otherwise illiberal content into their schools.

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