By Erin Viner
“I am going to use a term that I have never used before, a term that horrifies every Israeli who hears it. Anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war, with human lives, is a line that we could never reach—has no idea what he is talking about,” the Israeli President told the Knesset yesterday as he unveiled a proposal called the People’s Directive aimed at reaching compromise over the controversial judicial reform plan by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It is precisely now, in the State of Israel’s 75th year of independence, that the abyss is within touching distance. Today, I say to you what I told them: civil war is a red line! I will not allow it to happen! At any price, by any means,” stressed the Israeli President, warning, “We are at a crossroads: a historic crisis or a formative constitutional moment.”
[See the full text of President Herzog’s address below].
Israel’s right-wing 37th government, an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions, asserts it holds the mandate for changes, deemed necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.
“Key sections of the outline he presented only perpetuate the existing situation and do not bring the required balance to the Israeli authorities,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter. “This is the unfortunate truth.”
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 Coalition was also quick to issue a joint statement denouncing Herzog’s outline as “one-sided, biased and unacceptable,” that “means the complete cancellation of the necessary changes in the judicial system” and “ignores the root problems.” Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs wrote on Twitter that not a single member of the coalition supported the president’s plan.
“The outline he presented is not the outline of the people – but the outline of [Opposition leaders Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz, which means leaving the existing situation in which the judicial branch tramples the legislative branch and does not enable the government to fulfill its policies for which it was elected by the people,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir later alleged, adding, “The people chose to reform the judicial system – and with God’s help, it will pass.”
Likud Members of Knesset (MKs) dismissed Herzog’s compromise shortly after its presentation, for what they said was a failure to achieve the right balance between legislative and judicial powers within the government.
While welcoming the proposal, MK Lapid insisted “the State of Israel is being torn apart and we must make every effort to prevent economic, security and social disintegration that seriously harms national resilience.”
The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) also supported President Herzog, saying that he had “listened to all parts of the Israeli people, exhibited leadership at a time of unprecedented crisis, and produced a serious proposal that gives hope to many that it may still prove possible to bridge the gaps within us.”
The drive by Netanyahu’s hard-right government to enact sweeping changes to Israel’s courts led to domestic uproar and raised alarm among the country’s Western allies.
Weekly and increasingly raucous nationwide demonstrations erupted just days after the Netanyahu government took office, following 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. While the coalition’s proposed measures would change the way judges are appointed by giving the Knesset more oversight and the government more power on the committee which selects them, Herzog’s plan would see the selection committee include three ministers, the president of the High Court, two judges and two civil servants who will be agreed upon by both the President of the Supreme Court and the Justice Minister.
Netanyahu’s rejection of the presidential plan triggered yet another wave of public protests by Israelis across the political and military spectrums today. In Jerusalem, activists painted a symbolic red line along a route leading to the Supreme Court, where thousands of flag-waving marchers had gathered. Shouts of “Democracy or Death!” were heard by demonstrators in Tel Aviv.
Other protests are expected to be held in Germany where the Israeli Prime Minister is currently holding state talks.
The visit was shortened from the onset as Netanyahu delayed his flight to Berlin to allow discussion with his coalition members over possible amendments to the overhaul, and was then met at the airport hundreds of protesters hoping to disrupt his departure. Moreover, the Prime Minister’s Office announcing Netanyahu will return home today rather than tomorrow, as originally scheduled.
Full Text of Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s presentation of the People’s Directive for Changes in the Justice System:
Citizens of Israel. The serious security incident made public a few hours ago is clear proof that our enemies keenly detect the fraying of our Israeli sense of togetherness and are acting accordingly. This is not the only threat.
The last few weeks have been tearing us apart. They have damaged our economy, our security, Israel’s diplomatic ties, and especially Israel’s cohesion. Family Shabbat dinners have become warzones; friends and neighbors have become rivals. The discord is getting worse; the concerns, fears, anxieties—all, more tangible than ever.
I want to tell you something from the heart, and I very much hope that you will all take it to heart, too. Over the past few weeks, I have met thousands of citizens at the President’s Residence and outside it. The State of Israel’s finest sons and daughters. True patriots, on all sides of this dispute. Never in my life—never in my worst nightmares!—did I think I’d hear such words, even from a very small minority. I heard horrifying rhetoric. I heard real, deep hatred. I heard people on all sides, for whom, God forbid, the thought of blood in the streets is no longer shocking.
I am going to use a term that I have never used before, a term that horrifies every Israeli who hears it. Anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war, with human lives, is a line that we could never reach—has no idea what he is talking about. It is precisely now, in the State of Israel’s 75th year of independence, that the abyss is within touching distance. Today, I say to you what I told them: civil war is a red line! I will not allow it to happen! At any price. By any means. The IDF must be out of bounds, beyond all political dispute, and so must insubordination, of any sort.
We are in the throes of a profound crisis, but I truly and wholeheartedly believe that today we also stand on the brink of a momentous, historic opportunity. An opportunity for a balanced, wise, and consensual constitutional settlement of the relations between the branches of government in our Jewish and democratic state, in our beloved country. We are at a crossroads: a historic crisis or a formative constitutional moment.
Over the past few months, I have frequently stated that structural changes are required in the relations between the branches of government in Israel. I stand foursquare behind this determination. This will be to the benefit of our citizenry and to the benefit of our state. But fundamental and profound changes to the relations between the branches of government must be made wisely, to ensure that they bring blessings and good to the greatest number of people, to the broadest possible common ground. Such a common ground must reflect a broad spectrum of identities, beliefs, and worldviews, from all shades of the Israeli mosaic, including minority communities.
Indeed, full and absolute agreement is unachievable, but broad agreement on fundamental constitutional questions is the right thing at this critical moment. Israeli democracy is our lifeblood and we must protect it at all costs. Its firmest foundations, consistent with Jewish values, are binding on all of us.
Our ancient sources command us to pursue two things: justice and peace. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” “Seek peace and pursue it.” Over the past few weeks, in which I have been working on an agreed-upon framework, I have done everything in my power, day and night, to pursue justice and peace. I have spoken with a very broad spectrum of leaders and citizens. From all sections of the nation, of all varieties and identities, of all positions. Thousands of people. I have not skipped a single group. All were given a place, not only to make their voices heard but also to exercise genuine influence. One of the things I learned, unsurprisingly, is just how broad the space for agreement is.
Most citizens of Israel want a framework that will bring both justice and peace. Most citizens of Israel want a framework that will regulate once and for all the relations between the branches of government in Israel. Most citizens of Israel want a broad consensus. Most citizens of Israel want to live good and secure lives.
The framework that I present today represents the golden mean, which accommodates in a fitting, fair, balanced, and constructive manner these perspectives, beliefs, concerns, and anxieties. It reflects the zone of agreement and the greatest possible common ground. As I have already said: if only one side wins, the State of Israel will lose. In this framework, there is no winning side and losing side. This is a framework with which all victory goes to the State of Israel.
The place for legislation is the Knesset, and therefore it is important to emphasize, further to my most recent speech that this framework is supposed to form the basis for a new, principled proposal; a basis for in-depth, proper, and correct discussion.
This framework strengthens the Knesset, strengthens the Government, strengthens the justice system, and above all—strengthens the State of Israel. This framework protects each and every one of you, citizens of Israel. This framework protects the Jewish and democratic State of Israel. It is not a political compromise over any particular clause. It is not an initiative in favor of or against the legislation’s proposers or members of the Coalition. Nor is there any hidden intention to strengthen or weaken the opponents of the legislation or the Opposition. The only—only!—thing that I see before me is the good of our people. The good of our national home. The good of our greatest love, the State of Israel.
This framework addresses the important need for diversity in the justice system, so that the many voices among the Israeli people may be part of it and see it as their home; and it commits the justice system to necessary and overdue changes. This proposed framework anchors a fair and balanced relationship between the branches of government, allowing each branch to perform its role and act within its own purview without undue intervention by any other branch. This framework is fully committed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence; it fortifies the independence of the justice system; and it establishes human and civil rights, for men and women alike, including for the minorities in Israel.
As I have promised you, tonight I am publicizing the framework that I have put together. It is a detailed and rigorous framework that must be read in full. Therefore I invite you—leaders, parties, and the general public—to read and study it in depth on the purpose-made “People’s Framework” website, as well as on my social media pages.
I speak here from a place of respect for all sides in this argument. They are all, in my view, patriots who love their people and their country. It is precisely for this reason that everyone must grasp the magnitude of the hour. The state must not be allowed to be destroyed. I did not reach this office to please everyone, nor did I get involved in this dispute in order to please everyone or anyone in particular. The question is whether one wishes to topple the country over every small detail or not.
I am a believer, but I am not naïve. I know that as soon as I finish my remarks, if not earlier, opponents will rise up on all sides. I also know that some will flee from responsibility and that there will be those who have already agreed and will suddenly deny any connection or will try to backtrack. Let me tell you, on authority: the People’s Directive reflects a broad common ground and an intense desire for a common framework. The people want an agreed-upon solution; our state needs an agreed-upon solution, and it needs it now.
The framework that you will see on the “People’s Directive” website seizes this formative moment and kickstarts a historic, unifying, and groundbreaking endeavor that continues the mission of revival of our founding generation and extricates us, at long last, from the terrible mayhem that we are in, toward a rare constitutional moment.
Dear citizens of Israel, my sisters and brothers: as I speak, the People’s Framework is being sent to the nation’s elected officials—to the heads of the Knesset factions. The responsibility lies with them, and the responsibility is mighty. If they wish, they may debate it; if they wish, they may continue their war of all against all. You have an important role. A critical and fateful role, for us as a nation and as a state. I believe that this framework—the People’s Framework—can and must bring us both things. Both justice and peace.
Citizens of Israel, I believe in us, in each and every one of us, in this amazing Israeli mosaic. Let us take this step. Let us do it together, with justice and peace among us.