Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s latest plea for judicial-reform compromise was more than merely impassioned. Indeed, his speech to the nation on Thursday evening was downright angry, and with good reason.
As he pointed out in his concise address—delivered with a cracking voice and grim facial expression—he spent the previous 10 weeks “working around the clock, meeting with everybody, including with those who don’t agree with [him], even those who refuse to admit it.” He also mentioned the “harsh and hurtful” criticism he’s received for his efforts, though he claimed to take it “with love.”
That’s a bit hard to believe, given the wrath he incurred from anti-government protesters last month, when he dared to express sympathy for “both sides” of the debate. As a former head of the Labor Party, he wasn’t accustomed to the level of vitriol typically reserved for the right in general and Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu in particular.
But all he had to do to spark hate-filled demonstrations outside his residence—rife with threats against him and his wife—was acknowledge the concerns of each camp. The one that favors judicial reforms, he said on Feb. 12, “feels that an imbalance has developed between the branches [of government] and that lines have been crossed for years,” while the opposition considers the bills put forth by Justice Minister Yariv Levin to be “a real threat to Israeli democracy.”
To ignore either, he stressed—before presenting a five-point alternative plan as a “basis for immediate and decisive negotiations”—would be a “grave mistake.”
He must not have anticipated that even a nod to the legitimacy of the democratically elected ruling coalition would be seen by the left and fellow travelers as a mortal sin. Nor, apparently, had he imagined that willingness to discuss his proposal would come solely from pro-reform corners, despite its containing elements unacceptable to them.
He was foolish not to have realized that the Yair Lapid-led opposition, and the movement running the “resistance,” wouldn’t be satisfied with anything short of a complete halt to the legislative process and ultimate fall of the right-wing government. He seems to have wised up a bit since then, or at least changed his tactics.
This explains his frustration. It also sheds light on the shift in tone and substance of his recent words.
Whereas he initially tried to stave off “civil war” by honoring his role as an impartial figurehead and brokering a proverbial peace accord, on Thursday he denounced Levin’s plan by echoing the false narrative of its detractors.
“The legislation in its current iteration has to disappear and fast,” he declared. “It’s erroneous; it’s predatory. It shakes our democratic foundations. It must be replaced by a different, agreed-upon blueprint. And immediately.”
Israel’s democracy, he continued, “is a supreme value. A strong and independent judicial system is a supreme value, [as is] the preservation of human rights, for both men and women, with an emphasis on minorities.”
Because of his earlier insistence that he’d succeeded in reducing most points of contention between the sides—and perhaps to soften the outrageous implication that Levin and his backers don’t possess such values—he tipped his hat to the Israelis who favor the reforms. You know, a majority of the electorate.
“The special, rich Israeli mosaic is a supreme value and, yes, the diversity of the judiciary, for it to [serve] all citizens of the country, is a supreme value,” he said. “And a healthy, stable and clear relationship between the branches of government is a supreme value, as well.”
His pretense of evenhandedness didn’t end there. First, he admonished the “leaders of the country—the coalition and the government at its head—[that] we are at a point of no return. It’s a moment to be or not to be; to opt for consensus and [take advantage of a] constructive constitutional moment that will [enhance] us for generations to come, or slide into a constitutional, security, social and economic abyss.’”
Only afterward did he include the anti-government bloc in his reprimand. And this was without once referring to its campaign to vilify more than half of the populace and disrupt the functioning of the state whose democracy it professes to be safeguarding.
“You—both the coalition and the opposition—have to reach a decision,” he announced, posing the question: “Are Israel and its citizens above all, or will egos and narrow political interests kick us off the edge of the cliff?”
Before storming off the podium, he concluded: “You’re asking me to help you? I’m willing to help you. But the responsibility is on you, all factions. The choice is either disaster or a solution. If you continue as you have been until now, the chaos is on your hands. History will judge all of you. Take responsibility right now.”
It’s hard to fault Herzog for trying to appease the naysayers, whose viciousness takes nerves of steel to withstand. And he’s not only human, but hails from the left.
There are two problems with his entreaty, however. The first is that the government is open to reviewing and contemplating all counter-proposals, such as that developed by former Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and legal scholar Yuval Elbashan. Levin happily met on Wednesday with Elbashan, high-tech businessman Giora Yaron and former National Security Adviser Giora Eiland, who drafted the compromise. It’s Lapid and National Unity Party chief Benny Gantz who’ve rejected all overtures to parley.
The second hitch in Herzog’s appeal is that it won’t win him any popularity contests with the radicals running the show—you know, the “anybody but Bibi” activists purposely fomenting the “chaos” that he disparaged. It’s time for him to internalize the fact that they’d prefer to drag country down the tubes than come to the table.
Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and commentator. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, as well as on U.S.-Israel relations. The winner of the Louis Rappaport award for excellence in commentary, she is the author of the book To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the “Arab Spring.”