Israel’s president has warned that the bitter fight over the country’s judiciary has brought Israel to the verge of “the abyss”, as he set out a series of compromise proposals that were swiftly rejected by the government.
In a stark primetime address on Wednesday, Isaac Herzog said that as divisions over a controversial judicial overhaul being advanced by Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline new government had deepened, he had heard “people on all sides, for whom . . . the thought of blood in the streets is no longer shocking”.
“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,” Herzog said.
“It is precisely now, in the state of Israel’s 75th year of independence, that the abyss is within touching distance.”
Opposition politicians welcomed Herzog’s initiative. But in brief remarks before boarding an aircraft for an official visit to Germany on Wednesday night, Netanyahu dismissed the president’s blueprint.
“The things the president proposes were not agreed on by the coalition, and central elements of the proposal he offered just perpetuate the existing situation,” Netanyahu said. “That is the unfortunate truth.”
Israel has been in political turmoil since January, when Netanyahu’s coalition of rightwing, ultrareligious and ultranationalist groups launched a barrage of legislation designed to curb the powers of the judiciary.
The government argues that its changes, which would give it control over the appointment of judges and severely limit the top court’s power to strike down laws, are needed to rein in an overly activist judiciary.
But critics see the government’s changes as a fundamental threat to Israel’s checks and balances that will give the government unrestricted power, undermine minority protections, and damage the economy.
In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest against the plans, while reservists from across the military, including members of elite cyber, military intelligence and air force units, have threatened to stop training if they became law.
In an effort to break the impasse, Herzog, whose powers are largely ceremonial, set out what he said was “a basis for in-depth, proper and correct discussion” among government and opposition politicians.
In contrast to the legislation being advanced by the government, Herzog’s proposal would ensure that judicial appointments need broad consensus from a panel in which neither the government nor judges would have a majority.
His plan also leaves the top court greater scope to block legislation. While it would not be able to strike down Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, it could still block ordinary legislation. Unlike in the government’s proposals, parliament would be unable to override such decisions.
Basic Laws would become harder to pass, requiring a supermajority of at least 70 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to become law, rather than a simple majority.
Yair Lapid, head of the largest opposition party, Yesh Atid, said that the president’s framework should be approached “with respect for his position”, and lashed out at the coalition for rejecting it. Benny Gantz’s National Unity party said that it accepted the proposals “as a basis for legislation”.