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On Thursday evening, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office announced a last-minute televised statement by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Rumors and reports had been swirling that Netanyahu was going to step back or soften one bill of the judicial overhaul legislation that was set to come up for its final votes early next week: the reasonableness standard.
But instead, despite the tens of thousands of protesters, the increase in refusals to serve by military reservists and even a very public and harsh criticism of the judicial overhaul plan by US President Joe Biden, Netanyahu refused to back down.
Netanyahu spent the speech extolling how this piece of legislation, which would strip the Israeli Supreme Court of its ability to declare government actions “unreasonable,” would strengthen democracy, not destroy it – even though the Supreme Court is the only check on government actions in Israel, since the executive and legislative branches of government are always controlled by the same governing coalition. He said he was still open to discussions with the opposition, but blamed them for the breakdown in negotiations towards a compromise over the past few months.
He saved his harshest criticisms for two groups: the demonstrators on the streets and the military reservists who are refusing to serve in protest. Netanyahu said “extremists” in the protest movement “do not want any compromise but are striving for only one thing – to sow chaos in the country,” and chastised the tens of thousands of demonstrators who have been taking to the streets, blaming them for blocking traffic, trains, even ambulances (a charge the protest organizations have vehemently denied).
Even worse, he said, the growing number of military reservists who are refusing to serve as a form of protest “endangers the security of us all, of every citizen of Israel.”
“When elements in the military try – with threats – to dictate policy to the government, this is unacceptable in any democracy, and if they succeed in dictating their threats, this is the end of genuine democracy,” he said, warning that “refusal to serve by one side will certainly lead to refusal to serve by the other.”
The speech comes after a whirlwind trip to the United States by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who has been acting as mediator on the talks between the government and opposition. Herzog got the type of welcome in the US that Netanyahu has yet to receive – an Oval Office sit-down with President Biden, a speech to Congress, and meetings with every top American political figure.
Herzog used his speech to send a message – Israel and the United States are and will forever remain good friends, no matter what internal turmoil may be boiling. He leaned on history and the Bible to tie the two countries together, declaring that Israeli “democracy is strong and resilient” as he received more than a dozen standing ovations from US senators and representatives – including when he extolled the very institution Netanyahu is trying to weaken: a “strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary.”
“We are so very proud of the true friendship we have forged. A mutually beneficial partnership that has withstood challenges and weathered great disagreements, because it is based not on uniformity of approach, but on the ultimate currency of trust,” Herzog said. “It is not dependent upon operating in harmony, but on the history we share, on the truths we cherish, on the values we embody. ”
But the day before, Biden had been sounding a warning siren to Netanyahu via the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman: Pass this overhaul without broad consensus and you’re risking our relationship.
“This is obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship,” Biden told Friedman in their one-hour and 15-minute meeting. “Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need. For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”
Friedman’s own interpretation of Biden’s feelings went even farther: “He is basically pleading with Netanyahu and the prime minister’s supporters to understand: If we are not seen to share that democratic value, it will be difficult to sustain the special relationship that Israel and America have enjoyed for the last 75 years for another 75 years.”
But in his speech on Thursday Netanyahu seemingly dismissed such concerns.
“Citizens of Israel, all of the remarks about the destruction of democracy are simply absurd,” Netanyahu said. “This is an attempt to mislead you over something that has no basis in reality.”
Netanyahu claimed “efforts are being made to reach agreement on the issue of reasonableness,” but made no indication about any plans to pull the final votes for the legislation, scheduled for Sunday and Monday.
Friedman’s column made major waves in Israel, dominating media coverage. So too did a discrepancy between the White House and Netanyahu’s office over whether, during a Monday phone call between the two leaders, a proper and formal White House invitation had been extended to Netanyahu. The Israeli readout used the word “invitation,” while White House would only say the two leaders had “agreed to meet” in the US before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the protest movement is still incredibly active, with more taking to the streets on Thursday evening in impromptu demonstrations, amid reports of more and more reservists vowing they will not serve. That potentially puts Israel’s military preparedness at risk, just as the reasonableness legislation is set to go through its final votes early next week. Should it pass, it will be the first aspect of the judicial overhaul to do so.