Israel‘s president on Sunday appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay a contentious plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system and instead seek a compromise with his political opponents.
President Isaac Herzog issued the appeal in a prime-time nationwide address a day before Netanyahu’s coalition is to take its first steps toward implementing the plan in parliament.
The proposed reforms have triggered mass demonstrations and opposition from wide swaths of Israeli society. Even President Joe Biden has offered veiled criticism, saying Sunday that Israel’s democracy is built on consensus and an independent judiciary.
“I feel, we all feel, that we are in a moment before a collision, even a violent collision, a barrel of explosives before a blast,” Herzog said.
Herzog’s job is largely ceremonial. But the president is meant to serve as a moral compass and unifying force, and his words can carry great weight in a deeply divided country.
There was no immediate response from Netanyahu.
Netanyahu and his supporters say the proposed changes are needed to rein in a judiciary that wields too much power.
But his critics say the plan, which include proposals to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court, will damage the country’s fragile system of democratic checks and balances. They also say that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, is motivated by a personal grudge against the legal system and has a deep conflict of interest. Netanyahu has said he is a victim of a witch hunt.
“They want to destroy the system because the system wasn’t nice to them,” said Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel. “This is a hostile takeover by a bunch of crooks.”
Shraga’s movement has planned a mass demonstration outside the Knesset, or parliament, on Monday, when Netanyahu’s coalition is expected to introduce the first legislation for its sweeping overhaul. Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend.
Herzog urged Netanyahu to put off Monday’s vote and begin dialogue with his opponents, including the president of Israel’s Supreme Court. Saying that both sides have valid points, he offered a five-point plan as a basis for dialogue.
“An agreement can be reached,” Herzog said, offering to assist with negotiations.
“Any way you choose. Any time you choose, so long that we move on to a constructive and sustainable discourse and abandon the deceiving, insulting and dismissive discourse,” he said.
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Israeli media quoted Netanyahu’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, who has led the charge for the proposed overhaul, as saying he was open to dialogue but would not delay the legislation. However, Channel 12 TV quoted anonymous officials as saying the government would delay a preliminary vote by one week.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid called Herzog’s suggestions a “reasonable framework.”
Netanyahu’s proposals call for a series of sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary.
On Monday, a parliamentary committee is expected to approve legislation on a plan that would give lawmakers the power to appoint judges. Under the current system, appointments are made by a committee that includes lawyers, lawmakers and judges.
A second proposal being introduced this week aims to take away the Supreme Court’s authority to review “Basic Laws” — which serve as a sort of constitution — approved by parliament.
Another proposal in the works would give parliament the power to overturn decisions by the Supreme Court.
Critics say that taken together, this package of changes would weaken the independence of the judiciary and give absolute power to the country’s most right-wing government in history. They expect the campaign to eventually result in the dismissal of the criminal charges against Netanyahu.
The proposals have triggered unprecedented opposition. Tens of thousands of people have gathered in Tel Aviv and other cities each Saturday night over the past six weeks.
Influential groups, including high-tech executives, retired military brass, former judges and attorneys general and national security advisers, and teachers and students have all protested the plan.
On Sunday, Biden weighed in on the debate, making a rare foray by an American president into domestic Israeli affairs.
“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,” Biden told the New York Times. “Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
Committee approval will send the legislation to the full parliament for the first of three votes of approval — a process that is expected to take several months.
But it would reflect a determination by Netanyahu and his allies to press ahead in the face of deep divisions in Israeli society. Netanyahu has accused his opponents of incitement against him.
Critics say the plan is putting the country on an authoritarian path similar to the democratic backsliding that has taken place in Poland and Hungary.
Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said the proposed legal overhaul could lead to a heavily politicized judiciary that is loyal to the prime minister and loses its traditional oversight over the legislative branch.
In sum, the overhaul could open the way for the ruling party or coalition in government to pass any laws they chose unchecked, he warned.
“They will have total power. They will have the power in order to enact anything,” he said.