Benjamin Netanyahu resisted calls to drop his controversial overhaul of Israel’s judiciary in a fiery televised address Thursday, hours after his government passed a law that was condemned by critics as an effort to protect his position.
Israeli opposition politicians earlier condemned the new law, which would limit the ways a sitting prime minister can be declared unfit for office, describing it as a way to protect Netanyahu, who is facing an ongoing corruption trial.
By a 61-to-47 final vote, the Knesset approved the bill that states that only the prime minister himself or the cabinet, with a two-thirds majority, can declare the leader unfit. The cabinet vote would then need to be ratified by a super majority in the parliament.
Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the move a “disgraceful and corrupt personalized law” and said Netanyahu is “looking out only for himself.”
Netanyahu later doubled down on his controversial plans to weaken Israel’s judiciary, despite long-running protests and interventions from international leaders – as well as concerns from Israel’s security and military establishment.
“I am working to reach a solution and am attentive to the concerns of the other side. We have already made changes,” he said, pointing to a softening to the bill that would give the government power in appointing judges – a partial climbdown announced on Monday that was dismissed by critics as insufficient.
Israeli media had earlier reported on Thursday afternoon that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, was going to announce he believes the judicial overhaul needs to be halted because of the damage it was doing to Israel military. Hundreds of Israeli reservists, including specially trained Air Force crew, had announced they would refuse calls to serve if the overhaul passed, as they would no longer feel that they’d be serving a democratic government.
But Gallant was summoned to Netanyahu’s office for a meeting and announced he would delay his statement.
“Instead of stopping the legislation and calming the situation, Netanyahu once again played the victim and continued to spread outrageous lies against the judicial system which have no basis in reality,” Lapid said in a statement on Thursday night.
“Instead of blaming everyone else and casting aspersions on patriotic Israelis who are fighting for their children’s future, take responsibility for once,” he told Netanyahu.
The law passed on Thursday states that “the authority to declare the Prime Minister incapacitated will only belong to the government or the Knesset and will only occur due to physical or mental incapacity,” a Knesset statement said on Thursday.
The bill also prevents the Supreme Court from considering “a request to declare the incapacity of the Prime Minister.”
“Given that a sitting prime minister derives his power and authority from the people through his representatives, this proposal reflects the existing concept according to which the removal of the leader against his will, will be determined by the people’s representatives alone without the involvement of an unelected arm,” the statement said.
It came a day after Israel’s Ambassador to the United States was summoned over a vote in the Knesset on Tuesday to roll back 2005 legislation that previously ordered the evacuation of four Israeli settlements established in the northern West Bank.
Israel’s prime minister’s office later confirmed that no new settlements will be established in areas previously evacuated under the 2005 disengagement law, despite the repeals.
In a statement, the prime minister’s office said the parliament’s “decision to repeal parts of the secession law brings an end to a discriminatory and humiliating law that prohibited Jews from living in the areas of northern Samaria, part of our historical homeland,” using the biblical name for part of the West Bank.
“However, the government has no intention of establishing new settlements in these areas.”
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which treats the area as a closed military zone prohibiting Israeli civilians from entering, said it is still “learning the meanings of the bill and will act in accordance to the law.” Any changes to the area will not be executed without the IDF’s sign off.
Under international law, the West Bank is considered occupied territory and settlements there illegal, which Israel disputes.
In an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson Wednesday, Labor Party leader Michaeli said, “I believe that the protests must be a sign of warning and the signals that are coming from Washington must be a red light to Benjamin Netanyahu and to make him stop what he’s doing in order to save not only Israeli democracy and the state of Israel, but relations with the US as well.
“I can only hope that my Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets his act together as soon as possible and does not allow the US-Israel relations to come to a point that is dangerous for Israel, and that is not good for the region,” she continued.
Michaeli said she opposed the legislation calling it a “very harmful and very dangerous decision.” “One of the drivers for this judicial coup that they’re trying to pass now is the settlers that have been wanting to bring down the Supreme Court of Israel for many, many years because they want to be able to do in the West Bank whatever they want to do,” she added.
The opposition Israeli leader emphasized her party’s historic support for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving a nod to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who signed the Oslo Accords with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. She said the Labor Party knows how “closely attached” the conflict in the West Bank is with the judicial overhaul.
Opposition figures have announced plans to challenge the law limiting the ways a sitting prime minister can be declared unfit in the Supreme Court.
“Like thieves in the night, the coalition just passed a disgraceful and corrupt personalized law in response to a baseless rumour about recusal. Every citizen of Israel should know – days before Passover, while cost of living is soaring, Netanyahu is once more looking out only for himself,” Lapid said on Thursday.
Michaeli said the law that was passed is “a shameful, disgraceful law whose whole purpose is prevent Netanyahu from being sent to prison.”
“This is all that the coalition and this government are doing, with personal legislation and the regime coup. They are sacrificing the State of Israel in order to settle themselves under a corrupt government,” she said.
Netanyahu’s new far-right government has charged ahead with controversial plans to overhaul the country’s judicial system by undermining the Supreme Court, weakening judicial oversight over policymaking.
Netanyahu, who is the first sitting Israeli prime minister to appear in court as a defendant, is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies any wrongdoing.
As part of a deal with the court to serve as a prime minister despite his ongoing trial, Netanyahu agreed to a conflict of interest declaration. The Attorney General then determined the declaration meant Netanyahu could not be involved in the policy making of the judicial overhaul. A petition is currently in front of the Israeli Supreme Court to declare Netanyahu unfit for office on the grounds he has violated that conflict of interest declaration.
For months now, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have regularly taken to the streets to protest the overhaul, saying it will damage Israeli democracy. They’ve been joined by senior figures in Israel’s security, high-tech, financial and academic fields.