Herzog calls for delay of reform plan

Israeli President Isaac Herzog delivered a rare prime-time television address in an appeal to coalition ministers to hold off on enacting  their controversial judicial reform plans.

By Erin Viner

“We are on the brink of constitutional and social collapse,” the Israeli leader told a nationwide audience, stressing, “I feel – we all feel – that we are barely a moment away from a collision – and even from a violent collision.”

The government’s plan is detrimental to the democratic foundations of Israel and must be delayed until a compromise that better reflects Israeli diversity has been reached, he said.

Weekly mass public protests erupted after announcement by Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin of a sweeping “reform of governance” that will limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench. The government, which took office this month, insists the changes are necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and will restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.

Nationwide strikes have been called to be held today, in addition to a far-reaching demonstration in front of the Knesset where voting by the Constitution, Justice and Law Committee is slated to be held.

Recent polls reveal there is relatively little support for the proposed judicial changes as they stand.

Israel’s rightwing 37th government is an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions which assert they hold the mandate for sweeping change. Likud politicians have long accused the Supreme Court of being dominated by leftist judges who they say encroach on areas outside their authority for political reasons.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges which he denies, has dismissed the protests as refusal by leftist adversaries to accept the results of the 1 November’s election which resulted in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. He has ardently defended the judicial overhaul.

The Court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution.

Fierce opposition to the plan by center-left Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials and advocacy groups, and raised concerns among business leaders – further widening already deep political divisions in Israeli society. Economists and former security officials – who include Netanyahu confidantes and appointments – have warned that the proposals could have serious diplomatic and financial fallout.

Herzog, whose figurehead role is designed to unite an often-fractious society, urged immediate talks between the government and the opposition, based on five principles. Those include legislating a process for enacting Israel’s quasi-constitutional basic laws and barring any Supreme Court interference in them; as well as forging a clearer delineation of the Court’s authority; and a restricting of the committee that selects justices.

In another rare move, this time by the United States which generally avoids commentary on domestic Israeli matters, President Joe Biden gave a somewhat veiled statement on the contested move to the New York Times published yesterday.

“The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary,” said the US leader, adding that, “Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides also posted a message on Twitter, reading:  “Great speech tonight by a great leader. Thank you, President @Isaac_Herzog.”

The government’s proposed judicial revisions call for a simple 61 majority vote by the 120-seat parliament to provide lawmakers with a greater role in the appointment of the Supreme Court judges. Until now, the justices have been appointed and dismissed by the Judicial Appointments Committee that consists of professionals, lawmakers and other judges. The new plan would afford MKs a majority in that committee – primarily from the ruling right-wing and religiously conservative government. Such a move would transform current composition of the nine-member Supreme Court from just three members of the Netanyahu coalition to a majority of five.

Rejecting that format, President Herzog argued that “no side should have a built-in majority.”

While Herzog’s proposal is a worthy one, said Opposition leader Yair Lapid, that until understandings are reached “the struggle will not be halted, and the protest will not stop.”

The country’s five main banks – Hapoalim, Leumi, Mizrahi-Tfachot, Israel Discount and the First International Bank of Israel – also issued an uncommon statement in support of Herzog’s efforts to reach broad understandings – which they said would benefit the national economy.

Justice Minister Levin, however, reacted by dismissing any possible postponement in a statement that even though he is not opposed to dialogue, it “should not be linked to progress in the legislation proceedings.” Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law Justice Committee Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionist party also rejected Herzog’s appeal to suspend today’s scheduled vote, calling it “an opposition view” aimed at “undermining the government.”