Benjamin Netanyahu defiant on judicial reforms despite 'civil war' fears

Israeli Prime Minister says plans would bring Israel in line with western democracy

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, at a news conference Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday, March 16, 2023. Bloomberg
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday fiercely defended disputed judicial reforms on a visit to Berlin, where German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged him to reconsider a compromise.

There have been weeks of protests about the package of reforms since they were introduced by Mr Netanyahu's hard-right coalition, prompting Israeli President Isaac Herzog to warn the nation may be on the brink of "civil war".

Mr Scholz admitted he was watching the debate unfold in Israel "with great concern".

"As Israel's friend, we hope that the last word has not been spoken" on Mr Herzog's proposals for compromise.

The President, whose role is largely ceremonial, on Wednesday presented his compromise plans.

They were swiftly rejected by Mr Netanyahu, who said they would "only perpetuate the existing situation and do not bring the required balance between the powers".

He was defiant in In Berlin, saying his plans merely sought to bring Israel "in line with what is common and acceptable in just about every western democracy".

Mr Netanyahu also criticised "slanders and falsifications" against his and his coalition's intentions.

"Israel is being constantly … maligned," he said alongside Mr Scholz. I'm supposed to be some … potentate who's abolishing democracy and all this nonsense. This is absurd, it's preposterous."

But after a meeting with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Mr Netanyahu took on a more conciliatory tone.

Referring to nationwide demonstrations that have persisted for 10 weeks, he told journalists he was "attentive to what's happening in the country".

The coalition has proposed a two-stage process to a key element in the reform — "an immediate fix and then balancing things out", Mr Netanyahu said.

But he said that Mr Herzog had "discarded" the offer.

Mr Netanyahu's coalition, which includes ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right parties, says the reforms are needed to limit judicial overreach, but protesters say they threaten Israel's liberal democracy by weakening key checks and balances.

With the strife far from easing, Mr Herzog warned late Wednesday: "Anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war, with human lives, is a line that we could never reach, has no idea what he is talking about.

"It is precisely now, in the state of Israel's 75th year of independence, that the abyss is within touching distance. Today, I say to you what I told them: civil war is a red line.

"I will not allow it to happen."

He said he was convinced that most Israelis wanted a compromise.

The changes proposed by the coalition would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions that kill off laws with a parliamentary majority, and then deny the court the right to review such a move.

It would also make it harder for the Supreme Court to strike down legislation it considers would contravene Basic Laws, Israel's quasi-constitution.

Israeli protesters returned to the streets on Thursday, with some holding up placards saying the reforms spelled "the end of democracy".

In Berlin, several hundred protesters also turned out at the Brandenburg Gate, a short distance from the chancellery where Mr Netanyahu and Mr Scholz met.

Among them was Israeli Oren Goldberg, 44, who had travelled from the Netherlands to Berlin to demonstrate.

"I'm here to give a big welcome to the want-to-be dictator in Israel, to show him we won't accept it," Mr Goldberg said.

The controversy in Israel puts Germany in an uncomfortable position.

The two nations forged strong diplomatic ties in the decades after the Second World War, with Berlin committed to the preservation of the Israeli state after the Holocaust.

Successive German governments have described Israel's national security as a crucial foreign policy priority.

But in carefully worded statements, German leaders have voiced their worries over the legislative overhaul.

On Wednesday, Mr Steinmeier said he planned to raise the issue with Mr Netanyahu.

"What I would like to see is that what we have admired about Israel … is preserved."

The German presidency did not release a statement after the meeting.

But a senior Israeli official said the discussion mainly focused on Russia, with Mr Steinmeier urging Mr Netanyahu to use his ties with Vladimir Putin to help end the war in Ukraine.

Netanyahu was sceptical, noting that interests trump personal ties, but stressed he would do anything he could to stop the carnage in Ukraine, the official added.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 5:39 AM