President Herzog calls for compromise on judicial reform, urges Netanyahu to delay overhaul

Leader of the Opposition Yair Lapid welcomed the president’s suggestions. There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu, although several Hebrew reports say the coalition will delay the first reading on several overhaul bills until next week.

By TPS, JNS and World Israel News Staff

President Isaac Herzog took the unusual step of publicly addressing the nation Sunday evening, urging both sides in the current political debate over proposed judicial reforms to take a step back and calm down.

He did so as the country seems to be on the verge of a violent conflict; even the prime minister has accused the opposition of instigating a “civil war.”

The opposition, for its part, has described the proposed new laws as a “coup” attempt that would destroy Israel’s democracy, and some have recently called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a dictator.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin is seeking to change the process regarding how Supreme Court justices are appointed. Currently, judges in Israel’s highest court are selected by a small group of unelected officials who are not accountable to the public and make their decisions via secret ballots, with little transparency into the process.

The opposition has alleged that the judicial reforms proposed by Netanyahu’s coalition government will harm Israel’s democratic nature because they would diminish the authority of the country’s Supreme Court to oversee the validity of new legislation passed by the Knesset.

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The coalition leaders have countered that their proposed reforms are needed to “restore” democracy in Israel by undoing what they see as a court that has taken for itself too many powers never granted to it by law.

For the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating in Tel Aviv and other cities on Saturday night against the judicial reforms planned by the new Netanyahu government. On Monday, huge protests are being planned by several influential economic sectors and universities.

Last week, former Israel Air Force pilot Ze’ev Raz, one of the protest leaders, posted on Facebook: “If a prime minister rises and assumes dictatorial powers, he is a dead man, it’s that simple…. There’s an obligation to kill them.” In response, police said they opened an investigation on suspicion of incitement and threats.

Prior to that, prominent attorney David Hodek said he “would not hesitate to use live fire” if forced to live in a “dictatorship.”

‘If only one side wins, all of Israel loses’

Herzog said the current situation is causing him “great pain.” 

“We are in the midst of fateful days for our nation and for our country,” he said. “We have for quite some time now not been in a political debate but on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.”

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“I feel—we all feel—that we are “on the verge of a violent clash—a powder keg…on the threshold of one man’s hand against his brother’s,” he added.

The presidency in Israel is a ceremonial post with few actual powers, and the president does not ordinarily get involved in the country’s political debates. This is why Herzog’s speech on the current political discourse in the country – delivered at 8 p.m., when most Israelis are watching one of the local evening newscasts on broadcast television – is so unusual and a sign that the situation is precarious.

Herzog said that both sides need to understand that if only one side wins – and it does not matter which – then all of Israel loses.”

He called on the government to include the opposition in broad negotiations over any proposed changes and to first receive some sort of wide consensus that includes at least some support from the opposition before bringing any new law before the Knesset.

The president acknowledged the merits of both sides in the debate over judicial reforms. “The reforms come from a political faction that feels that the balance between the branches of government has been lost” and that this needs to be corrected, he said.

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“It is possible to arrive at a broad agreement,” said Herzog.

He presented five principles as “a basis for immediate and decisive negotiations that will arrange the relations between the government branches.”

He first proposed the passage of a Basic Law: The Constitution that would establish “constitutional stability” by clarifying the relations among the three branches and between various laws. He also said the number of judges must be increased to decrease judicial workload, and the courts must be made to function more efficiently so that cases won’t drag on. And he urged a change in the way judges are selected so that no branch of government has a majority say in choosing them.

In his final principle, Herzog took a position advocated by proponents of reform, arguing against the judicial rationale of “reasonability,” whereby judges can overturn laws based on whether they consider them “reasonable.”

“An unrestricted use of the pretext of reasonableness could become the basis for a disproportionate entry of the judicial authority into the exclusive territory designated for the executive and legislative branches,” he said.

Herzog closed by calling on all sides to lower both the temperature, to build bridges and to begin a dialogue.