LONDON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that his plan to overhaul his country’s judicial system is “a minor correction” to an “activist” court.
“It’s described as the end of Israeli democracy — I think that’s silly and when the dust settles, everybody will see it,” Netanyahu told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an interview on “Good Morning America.”
On Monday, Israeli lawmakers approved the first major piece of legislation in Netanyahu’s broader plan to reform the country’s judiciary, sparking mass protests in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The new law removes the court system’s ability to strike down “unreasonable” decisions by the government. Critics of Netanyahu’s plan say it pushes Israel away from democratic ideals and toward authoritarian rule, while supporters say it claws back some power from unelected judges.
Netanyahu told ABC News that his government is trying to “bring back Israeli democracy in line with what is common to all democracies.”
“The essence of democracy is the balance between the will of the majority and the rights of the minority, and that’s achieved by the balance between the three branches of government,” the Israeli prime minister said during Thursday’s interview. “That’s been taken off the rails in Israel in the last 20 years because we have the most activist judicial court on the planet and it’s arrogated to itself powers from the government — from the executive and the legislative branches.”
“I want to bring the pendulum to the middle, I don’t want to bring the pendulum to the other side,” he continued. “But we have to correct it and that’s what we just did. It’s a minor correction.”
The proposed overhaul has stirred concern among Israel’s closest allies, with the United States calling Monday’s enactment of the law “unfortunate” and the European Union saying it was “following the developments in Israel closely and with concern.”
But Netanyahu told ABC News on Thursday that he thinks the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is “as strong as it’s ever been.” He also noted that he followed the Biden administration’s advice to proceed with the reform slowly.
“This has been as slow as you can go,” he added. “I actually pressed the pause button for three months because I did take seriously the concerns. I don’t think the arguments are real but I think the concern is real people are afraid, I understand that.”
“So I pressed the pause button for three months, tried to get some kind of compromise on anything and couldn’t get anything from the opposition and, therefore, decided to proceed with this minor correction,” he continued. “As I said to President Biden, I’ll try to proceed if not with a consensus with the opposition — the other side of the political aisle in our parliament — then at least on something that has broad acceptance in the public.”
The Israeli leader said he thinks “it’s possible” to find “middle ground.”
“I’m actually more optimistic now than I was before,” he told ABC News. “I hope the opposition leaders show responsibility and come to the middle. There is a middle out there.”
When asked about criticism that the reform was designed in part for Netanyahu to protect himself against the corruption charges he’s facing, the Israeli prime minister called it “ridiculous” and said “it has nothing to do with my trial because it’s been proceeding for three years.”
“This is something that concerns millions of Israelis who, for the last 20 years, feel that they’re going to the polls, they’re voting in a government, they’re voting for policies that are then nullified by a judiciary that basically arrogated itself the powers of the majority,” he said. “And that I don’t think is right for democracy. That’s what’s driving this reform, not my individual case which is proceeding fine.”
Netanyahu presided over the vote on the controversial bill in the Knesset on Monday just hours after being released from the hospital where he had a pacemaker implanted. He told ABC News on Thursday that he was feeling “terrific.”
“Man of steel,” he said, laughing. “Or plastic, I think that’s what they put in there.”
ABC News’ Kevin Shalvey contributed to this report.