Benjamin Netanyahu says original judicial reforms were a mistake

'Israel was, is, and will always be a robust democracy', Prime Minister says in chat with Elon Musk

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed his government's judicial reforms and anti-Semitism during a meeting with tech billionaire Elon Musk. AP Photo
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent shockwaves through Israeli politics on Monday when he said original plans by his government to drastically reduce the power of Israel’s judiciary were a “mistake”.

Mr Netanyahu said aspects of the proposed reforms "reject one imbalance by creating another imbalance".

"If the court can rule against any decision made by the government or the parliament, then let’s not correct it by having the parliament reject any decision with a simple majority, that the court makes," he said in an apparent reference to one of the reforms that would allow governments to override court rulings by a simple majority.

“I thought that was a mistake," he added.

Supporters of the reforms say the changes will rein in an overly powerful and anti-democratic judiciary. Opponents say they will end democracy.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets every week since early this year to protest against moves to give the government more power to select judges and to limit the ability of courts to strike down legislation, among other measures.

Mr Netanyahu's government has so far enacted a law that would stop courts being able to strike down legislation on the basis of “reasonableness”. Another proposal to alter a committee that selects judges is in advanced stages.

Protesters in San Francisco demonstrate against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to California. EPA

Despite the unprecedented levels of division in Israel over the reforms, Mr Netanyahu insisted that he has been pursuing more of a conciliatory path than critics say he has.

“I have a majority in the parliament … to legislate anything, but I didn’t. I held back because I want this to be a consensus,” he said.

“Israel was, is, and will always be a robust democracy,” he added.

Mr Netanyahu made his comments in a conversation with billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk that was broadcast live over X, formerly known as Twitter, a platform that the tech billionaire recently acquired.

News agencies reported that about 200 people protested against the judicial overhaul outside the Tesla office where Mr Netanyahu and Mr Musk met.

Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday that his meeting with Mr Musk, part of his visit to the US for the UN General Assembly, was to drum up investment in Israel’s artificial intelligence and tech sector.

The push comes despite Israel’s tech and start-up community taking an outsized role in the anti-government protests, sounding the alarm that a weakened judiciary would deter foreign investors and lead to the country’s brightest minds emigrating.

Elon Musk held his meeting with Netanyahu on Monday. Reuters

Israel is often labelled the “start-up nation”.

The conversation also addressed mounting accusations that X was amplifying anti-Semitic content.

The Washington Post reported that the meeting had been set up by Jewish friends and colleagues of Mr Musk in a bid to stem a series of scandals.

“Obviously, I'm against anti-Semitism,” Mr Musk said. “I'm against anti-anything that promotes hate and conflict.”

Updated: September 19, 2023, 11:42 AM