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Israeli FM slams Europe for 'interfering' in judicial overhaul

Ahead of a debate at the European Parliament on Israel’s judicial overhaul, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen accused EU Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrel of interfering in Israel’s internal affairs.
Israelis protest against the government's controversial judicial reform bill, in front of the residence of Justice Minister Yariv Levin, in the central city of Modiin, on March 9, 2022. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP) (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images)

PARIS — Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohem spoke on the phone Monday with European Union Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell, criticizing his statements on Israeli-Palestinian West Bank escalation and the EU's alleged interference in Israel’s internal affairs, namely the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

A statement issued by Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Cohen slammed Borrell over statements comparing the killing of Palestinian assailants in IDF anti-terror operations with the murder of Israeli civilians in terror acts. Cohen said, "The interference by the EU in Israel’s internal politics and the financing of Palestinian operations encouraging incitement and the payments to families of terrorists must stop."

The conversation, which was initiated by Cohen, took place only hours before a debate at the European Parliament scheduled for Tuesday evening. For the first time, the European Parliament will discuss the widespread public protests in Israel over the government’s efforts to limit the judiciary’s powers. The announcement of the scheduled debate, made last Friday, criticized Israel’s police. It read, "With protests growing, including from members of Israel’s cultural sphere, hi-tech sector, economists and people linked to the military and intelligence community, Israeli security forces have occasionally used stun grenades and water cannons to disperse demonstrators." It also noted that Borrell will join the parliamentarian debate in Strasbourg.

Israel appears is increasingly worried over European leaders expressing their concerns over the judicial overhaul plan, and for good reason.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, French President Emmanuel Macron warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their meeting in Paris last month against following through with the judicial reform, saying it “threatens to break the power of the Supreme Court, the only institutional counter-power in the government.”

On a visit to Israel last month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock raised similar concerns. “We abroad are concerned about some Israeli legislative plans. The values that bind us together include the protection of principles of the rule of law such as judicial independence. This was always a hallmark of Israel,” she noted.

Criticism over the judicial overhaul is also emerging from within Jewish communities in Europe. A leader of the Italian Jewish community attacked the judicial overhaul plan in a speech last week in the presence of Netanyahu in Rome. A message leaked to Israeli media from the Israeli Embassy in Paris to the Jerusalem headquarters said that even Israel’s best friends, including people who support the Netanyahu government, have started to publicly criticize the judicial reform.

Reacting to all these developments, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem sent a long list of talking points to all the embassies in Europe. Israeli diplomats were instructed to explain that Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy that is holding a public debate on reforms that concern Israeli society. The latest Israeli elections, it was noted, expressed a clear choice by the voters on the identity of the government and its agenda.

Sources in the European Parliament told Al-Monitor that for any topic to brought up for discussion, a majority of factions must agree to add it to the agenda. The source also said that no Israeli representative has been invited to attend the debate. An Israeli diplomatic source said the topic was sponsored mostly by extreme-left parliamentarians.

While the European Parliament cannot pass any binding resolution on the issue, but it could call next upon European Union member states to condemn the Israeli government or at least discuss the matter at the next foreign affairs council on Monday. The debate in the parliament will certainly heighten tensions ahead of Netanyahu’s expected meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz this Thursday. Instead of focusing on Iran, talks between the two leaders could take a different turn, as could also happen on Netanyahu’s trip to London scheduled for next week.

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