Ignored for weeks by the Netanyahu coalition, President Isaac Herzog on Thursday night resorted to apocalyptic terms to describe the existential disaster about to befall Israel.
The country, he said, was “at the point of no return,” about to “fall off a cliff.” Its political leadership needed to “take responsibility” and act now. “If you choose the path you have followed thus far, the chaos will be on you. History will judge you.”
Herzog was focused on the coalition’s program to neuter the judiciary and give itself all power, and in unprecedented language, he flatly told the government to “abandon” that goal, and right away.
The legislative package, which the coalition has declared it intends to blitz through the Knesset into law in the next three weeks, “is wrong, it is oppressive, it undermines our democratic foundations,” the president said. “And therefore, it must be replaced with another plan, one that has consensus, and immediately.”
But Herzog also happened to find himself speaking minutes after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, had dismissed Tel Aviv’s police chief, apparently for not using enough force against demonstrators who have for weeks, in growing numbers and with growing desperation, been protesting the overhaul.
The firing of Amichai Eshed was a step Ben Gvir formally has no right to take, but one that was cloaked in an ostensible police reshuffle, purportedly endorsed by the hapless national police commissioner Kobi Shabtai. “This is [part of the coalition’s] regime revolution,” fumed Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. “Crude intervention in the work of the police… that shows the political echelon’s determination to turn us all into its subjects.”
With utterly horrific timing, Herzog also happened to finish speaking minutes before a terrorist attack, in which three people were shot, one of them critically wounded, in central Tel Aviv. Needless to say, it fell to Eshed, whose dismissal had been announced with immediate effect, to nonetheless oversee his force’s handling of the incident.
As often happened during the Second Intifada terrorist onslaught of the early 2000s, some Israeli news broadcasts resorted to split-screen to keep viewers abreast of everything that was playing out — divided, in this case, between the first footage of the Tel Aviv terror attack and Netanyahu, seated in a synagogue in Rome, being updated about the shooting on Dizengoff Street.
In an immediate response to Herzog’s speech and before the attack, Netanyahu declared in Rome that he welcomes “all initiatives” to find agreement and common ground. “We must remember, especially in these days, days of argument and debate within Israel, that we are one nation with a common future,” Netanyahu said. “We are all brothers. Brothers and sisters.”
But that, of course, was precisely what Herzog was imploring the ultra-divisive Netanyahu to remember.
If the fast-widening, utterly destructive rift in Israel is to be healed, if Israel is to regain its internal cohesion, it is Netanyahu who must, to echo the president, “take responsibility immediately.” For we depend upon internal resolve and resilience in order to face down our external enemies — notably including the terrorists who relentlessly seek our demise.
Manifestly, that requires Netanyahu to dismiss the oft-convicted criminal and racist he shamefully appointed as minister of national security, Ben Gvir, before he causes still more harm to the police force and the citizenry.
It requires removing a second Jewish supremacist minister in his government, Bezalel Smotrich, outrageously installed as finance minister and as a minister in the Defense Ministry. Smotrich last week called for the State of Israel to “wipe out” a Palestinian town where a terrorist had killed two Israeli brothers — comments that he belatedly walked back, but not before they sparked an ongoing mini-rebellion in the Israeli military.
And of course, it requires Netanyahu to heed the president’s call to abandon his government’s legislative assault on Israel’s foundational values of democracy and tolerant Judaism. Because Israel, day by day, is moving closer to the edge of that cliff.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
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