Israel’s president has warned that a bitter battle over the country’s judiciary has brought Israel to the brink of an “abyss”, as he set out a series of settlement proposals that were swiftly rejected by the government.
In a primetime address Wednesday, Isaac Herzog said that as divisions deepened over controversial judicial reform by Benjamin Netanyahu’s radical new government, 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 real civil war, with human lives, is a line that we’ve never reached — doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Herzog said.
“It is certainly now, in 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 proposed were not agreed upon by the coalition, and the central elements of the proposal he offered only perpetuate the existing situation,” Netanyahu said. “That’s the unfortunate truth.”
Israel has been in political turmoil since January, when Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing, ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist groups launched a barrage of laws 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 necessary to rein in an overactive judiciary.
But critics see the government changes as a fundamental threat to Israel’s checks and balances that would give the government unchecked power, undermine minority protections and hurt the economy.
In recent weeks, thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the plans, while reservists across the military, including members of elite cyber, military intelligence and air force units, have threatened to halt training if they become law.
In an attempt to break the impasse, Herzog, whose powers are largely ceremonial, set out what he said was “the basis for an in-depth, fair and genuine debate” between government and opposition politicians.
Unlike legislation that is pushed by the government, Herzog’s proposal would ensure that judicial appointments require a broad consensus of a panel that does not include a majority of the government or the judges.
His plan gives the Supreme Court more room to block the law. While it cannot strike down Israel’s semi-constitutional basic laws, it can still block ordinary legislation. Contrary to the government’s proposals, Parliament would be unable to override such decisions.
Basic laws will be harder to pass, requiring a supermajority of at least 70 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to become law, rather than a simple majority.
Yer Lapid, head of the largest opposition party, Yesh Atid, said the presidential framework should be approached “with respect for his position”, and blasted the coalition for rejecting it. Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party said it accepted the proposals “as a basis of law”.