Israeli President Isaac Herzog said on Sunday that “profound” disagreement over the government’s judicial reform plan was tearing the country apart, and vowed to work towards averting a constitutional crisis.
“We are in the grips of a profound disagreement that is tearing our nation apart. This conflict worries me deeply, as it worries many across Israel and the Diaspora. The foundations of Israeli democracy, including the justice system, are sacred and we must strictly safeguard them, even at a time of fundamental arguments and debates about the relationship between the different branches of government,” Herzog said in a statement.
“I respect everyone who has been arguing and getting involved, protesting and demonstrating, and I appreciate the public engagement in this important debate. I respect the criticism towards me, but I am now focused on two critical roles that I believe I bear as president at this hour: averting a historic constitutional crisis and stopping the continued rift within our nation,” he continued.
Herzog added that he has been working “full time” to create “wide-reaching, attentive and respectful discussion and dialogue” between the relevant parties.
“I hope [this] will yield results. I humbly admit that I am not certain of this endeavor’s success,” he said. “There is still a long way to go and significant gaps remain.”
An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Israelis took to the streets on Saturday evening for demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem against the proposed legal reforms of the Netanyahu-led government.
“We came out to protest against the attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship. We will come next week, in two weeks and in three,” said Roee Neuman, spokesman for the Black Flags movement, one of the protest organizers.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Wednesday published a draft of his judicial reform bill. The proposed legislation, presented as an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, has not yet been put before the Knesset.
The bill includes an “override clause” that would enable the Knesset, with an absolute majority of 61 members, to reverse Supreme Court decisions to overturn laws. It would also change the way judges are appointed, giving the majority on the selection committee to elected officials. In a related change, the bill calls for Supreme Court judges to be appointed in a public hearing.
Third, the bill eliminates the legal justification of “lack of reasonableness,” which critics argue is vague and has been used by the court to mean whatever it likes.
Last week, Herzog appealed to politicians and the public to tone down their rhetoric amid threats that the government’s judicial reform proposal will ignite a “civil war.”
It came after Oztma Yehudit lawmaker Zvika Fogel accused opposition leader Yair Lapid and three others of “treason” for what he views as fomenting a civil war. In an interview with the Kan public broadcaster, Fogel defined Lapid, National Unity Party head Benny Gantz, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan as the “most dangerous” people in Israel.
“These four are talking about war. If they were calling to protest I’d give them every right to protest. But they’re talking in terms of me being an enemy. As far as I’m concerned, it’s treason against the state,” said Fogel.
Lapid last week called the government’s proposed judicial reforms an “extreme regime change” and vowed to continue fighting in streets across the country in “a war over our home.”
His comments were echoed by Gantz, who said: “If you [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] continue the way you are going, the responsibility for the civil war that is brewing in Israeli society will be on you.”
In response, Netanyahu accused his political opponents of “planting the seeds of disaster” by encouraging a rebellion against a democratically-elected government.