Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, has launched a stark denunciation of the policies of the rightwing government of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warning that Israeli democracy is in danger.
In a speech at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Rivlin bluntly accused government ministers of promoting efforts to weaken Israel’s supreme court and “silence the free media”.
Changes to the supreme court have become a toxic political issue in a country where the the separation between the judiciary and legislature is hotly contested, and where the political right has seen the court as an obstruction to its agenda.
Rivlin, whose position is largely ceremonial, described proposed moves against the court by Israel’s most rightwing government ever, in particular by the far-right education minister, Naftali Bennett, and his allies, as part of “a continuous attempt to weaken the gatekeepers of the Israeli democracy”.
Seated at the dais opposite Netanyahu, he said: “In this climate of delegitimisation, the atmosphere of ‘everything is political’ trickles down to the public, who receive the message that there is no more statesmanship, that there is only ruling and democracy. And in this climate, democracy means that the strong decides.”
He added: “Leadership in a democratic country is the art of creating agreements, not vanquishing opponents. A democratic society is based on building processes, not revolutions.”
The Israeli president continued by criticising the politicisation of Israel’s state institutions, which critics claim have gradually been placed in the hands of people regarded as loyal to Netanyahu and ministers in his coalition.
“In this revolution, the ruler is also the victim. ‘We’ll show them’ is the soundtrack of the revolution. The stateliness has gone from our country. After us the deluge.”
Returning to the subject of rightwing moves to remove the ability of Israel’s top court to strike down laws passed by MPs, he added: “How can a threatened, conformist and toothless court be in the interest of the state of Israel? Of Israeli democracy?”
The comments by Rivlin, who comes from the same rightwing Likud party as Netanyahu, will have particular resonance in Israel. While warnings that democracy is in danger of being undermined are commonplace on Israel’s marginalised left, Rivlin’s remarks will be harder to ignore.
And while he was not explicit, the two most prominent targets of the speech appeared to be Netanyahu, who has spent months attacking the Israeli media for its revelations on a series of police corruption investigations into his conduct, and Bennett, the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, who, with the justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, has taken aim at the supreme court.
“The supreme court is not supposed to intervene and tell us if it likes or doesn’t like a specific law. That is the job of the Knesset,” Bennett told journalists earlier in the day.
Rivlin’s comments come at the beginning of what looks likely to be an unusually bitter and controversial session of the Knesset, in which Netanyahu allies have already proposed a new law which critics argue could indemnify the prime minister from facing charges.
Netanyahu, who has responded to various corruption investigations by attacking Israel’s media, law enforcement, judiciary and other so-called “elites” he believes are bent on his removal, began his address to parliament by listing his accomplishments, before once again ripping into critics.
“This is the golden age of Israel. Israel is in the midst of an unprecedented diplomatic and economic momentum,” he said. “The industry of despondency is still here and has respectable representatives in this house and in the media.”
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