In rare rebuke, Germany’s Scholz voices ‘great concern’ over Israel’s judicial reforms

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BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz issued rare criticism of the Israeli government Thursday, expressing “great concern” over planned judicial reforms that have sparked protests. 

Scholz made the remarks during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was visiting the German capital, urging the Israeli leader to reconsider a compromise proposal on the reforms.

“As democratic value partners and close friends of Israel, we are following this debate [over the planned judicial reforms] very closely and — I will not hide this — with great concern,” Scholz said. “The independence of the judiciary is a high democratic good.”

Since the end of World War II and Berlin’s reckoning with the atrocities the country committed during the Holocaust, German leaders have traditionally been cautious about making critical remarks about the Israeli government. But the judicial reforms have raised concerns both at home and abroad.

Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, which includes ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties, has proposed changes that would allow lawmakers to override decisions by the country’s Supreme Court, while also increasing the government’s influence in the appointment of judges. Opponents argue the proposals undermine democracy and the rule of law, and demonstrations against the measures have been ongoing for weeks.

Scholz urged Netanyahu to reconsider his rejection of a compromise proposal that Israel’s President Isaac Herzog had presented on Wednesday.

“We know that President Herzog last night also made concrete proposals for resolving the difficult situation. As friends of Israel, we would like to see that the last word has not yet been said about this proposal,” the chancellor said, adding that Israel must try to find “the broadest possible” social consensus.

In striking remarks, Herzog had also warned Wednesday that Netanyahu’s reforms could plunge Israel into a civil war: “Anyone who thinks that a real civil war … is a line that we will not reach has no idea. The abyss is within touching distance,” the president said.

Netanyahu, however, fiercely defended his reform proposals: “Israel has an independent judiciary, but many believe it is too powerful,” the prime minister said, adding: “The accusation that we are breaking with democracy is not true.”

He even made the controversial claim that his government is merely trying to rein in judicial powers to a level similar to Germany: “When we will have carried out this reform, we will have the same separation of powers as in other countries and as in your country,” Netanyahu said. “We want to bring [our judiciary] in line with what is acceptable in all other Western democracies.”

Scholz emphasized the importance of Israel’s democratic values, also when it comes to dealing with its various critics around the world.

“For us, Israel’s democracy is a very important value partner, and that is something we also emphasize again and again when we talk to others who question our unwavering support for Israel,” the chancellor said.