One Likud minister blasts president's plea as 'hypocrisy'

Coalition signals some readiness to weigh Herzog judicial proposal, will delay votes

Justice minister rejects pausing legal overhaul to allow for negotiations, says they can be held as bills advance; opposition welcomes president’s offer as ‘fair basis for talks’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Feb.12, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg, Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Feb.12, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg, Pool)

President Isaac Herzog’s earnest plea on Sunday for deliberation and compromise on the coalition’s contentious plans to radically overhaul the judiciary was met with support from the opposition, national figures, and the US ambassador.

The coalition, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, indicated it would not delay Monday’s committee votes on advancing some of the bills that make up the government’s plan, but would wait a week before bringing them to a first vote in the plenum — instead of doing so immediately.

It signaled it was doing so to possibly allow for talks with opponents of the judicial shakeup, which would impose sweeping changes to the legal and judicial systems, almost entirely eradicate the High Court of Justice’s power of judicial review and give the government an automatic majority on the judicial selection committee.

The proposals have generated intense opposition from numerous quarters of Israeli society and have led to mass weekly demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities, as well as coordinated strikes, including one planned for Monday.

After the president presented a five-point plan on the judicial overhaul as a general basis for a compromise agreement, Channel 12 news cited a “very senior coalition source” as saying: “If the heads of the opposition and Supreme Court president announce their agreement to hold discussions based on the president’s principles, they will find partners in the government with open hearts and willingness.”

The source said the government would wait a week before bringing the proposed bills to a vote in the plenum for a first reading.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is spearheading the effort for sweeping limitations on the court’s powers, said some elements of the president’s proposal “are positive,” while others “perpetuate the existing, faulty situation.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at his side, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Feb. 12, 2023. (Amit Shabi / Pool)

He insisted that in order to prevent talks from being used “as a method of foot-dragging… discussions cannot be connected to the process of advancing the legislation.” Levin argued there was enough time to hold discussions before the bills are brought to a second and third reading in the plenum.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said after the president’s speech that Herzog’s offer was “proper.” Until the coalition accepts it, he said, “the fight will not stop, the protest will not stop.”

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, also in the opposition, offered support “for the president and his important comments.” He said he and his party were prepared “for talks to reach an agreement on a true reform that will keep the justice system “apolitical and independent.”

His deputy in the party, former justice minister Gideon Sa’ar, said the president’s proposal was “a fair basis for talks,” while adding that “the condition for honest and real discussion is to immediately stop the legislation.”

MK Chili Tropper, also of the National Unity party, said: “Anyone who feels national responsibility and wants to prevent a rift ….and maintain democracy must respond ‘yes’ to the president’s principles.”

MK Yair Lapid speaks at the outset of Yesh Atid’s Knesset faction meeting, January 16, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Protest leaders also welcomed Herzog’s proposals and lauded “the president’s speech that came from the depths of his heart, as he understands the depth of the crisis a dictatorship will bring.” They vowed to continue to take action until the government “announces it is entirely removing the threat of destroying Zionism and democracy.”

The heads of top Israeli banks including Hapoalim Bank, Bank Leumi, Discount Bank, and Mizrahi-Tefahot issued a joint statement supporting the president’s call for judicial change “through deliberation and broad national agreement that will maintain unity and ensure and Jewish and democratic Israel and a thriving economy.”

Histadrut labor federation chair Arnon Bar-David called on “all Israeli citizens to unite behind the president’s words.

“The story of our life in the country for which we yearned for 2,000 years was written in toil, sweat, pain and determination, but more than everything, it was enabled by our unity as a society. There are no winners and losers here. Let’s stop before the political rift tears Israeli society apart,” said Bar-David.

US Ambassador Tom Nides lauded Herzog’s address and proposals. “Great speech tonight by a great leader,” he tweeted.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement: “Israel is at a sensitive and dangerous crossroads. We must choose conversation over war, compromise over ‘defeating’ each other. President Herzog is leaving no stone unturned in the effort to reach internal reconciliation.”

The Institute for National Security Studies, a leading Israeli think tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University, also voiced support for the president’s offer, warning that “Israeli society is divided and torn” and urging all sides “to hold immediate talks out of a true desire to safeguard our joint ethos.” It said the president’s call “may be the last chance to prevent the widening of the split in Israeli society to unprecedented dimensions.”

But Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi of Likud quickly rejected Herzog’s overtures.

He said that under the previous “fraudulent” government, “when they defied and defiled systems [of God], I did not hear anyone offer compromise.”

“When Torah students were persecuted,” he said, possibly in reference to cuts to childcare subsidies, “when they trampled over Likud supporters, over tradition, over Zionism, there was no call for talks.”

Karhi said “hypocrisy is the name of the game and we’re done taking part in it. The reforms should move forward with full force.”

MK Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionism party, who serves as chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and is a key architect of the sweeping judicial changes, said: “In the end, the demand to halt or delay is an opposition demand. We don’t have endless time to do things, and so stopping the legislation is an attempt to stop the government, and we have an obligation to our voters.”

Rothman insisted that the parties “can hold talks between the first plenary reading and the second and third.”

MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset on February 8, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his rare speech to the nation earlier Sunday, Herzog called for compromise over the government’s judicial plans, warning of what he said was imminent conflict and even bloodshed.

Speaking from the president’s residence, Herzog said the country was on the verge of “societal and constitutional collapse,” and implored citizens on both sides of the political aisle to refrain from violence, “all the more so violence against public servants and elected officials.”

The president said he was deeply concerned over the nature of the government’s reforms, stating that he worried they had the potential to harm “the democratic foundations” of the country, but said that “change” and “reform” were nevertheless legitimate pursuits.

He proposed a five-point plan as an outline for a compromise agreement over the contentious shakeup agenda, while urging the coalition not to move ahead with the legislative process.

President Isaac Herzog delivers a message to the nation from his office in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Rothman’s committee was poised Monday to vote on moving some of the bills making up the plan to the plenum for their first reading.

Herzog said he had been working in recent weeks to seek “broad agreement” and had been urging the sides not to adopt a zero-sum approach.

“We will all lose, the State of Israel will lose,” if no consensual agreement is reached, the president said in the televised speech, which came as the primetime nightly news broadcasts began.

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