Ex-security chiefs urge Herzog to air ‘unambiguous’ opposition to judicial overhaul

Letter declares president’s efforts to mediate talks with opposition on government’s proposals have failed; signatories vow to use ‘all legal and democratic means’ to fight plan

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

President Isaac Herzog at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Isaac Herzog at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Dozens of former senior security officials, including ex-prime minister Ehud Barak and former Shin Bet and Mossad chiefs, published a letter on Wednesday pleading with President Isaac Herzog to refrain from aiding the government in its judicial overhaul, as mass protests were held across the country in opposition to the coalition’s proposals.

The signatories wrote that despite Herzog’s call in February for a freeze in the legislative process as a condition for negotiation with the opposition on the legislation, the coalition has nevertheless advanced its agenda, and introduced additional bills “designed to crush democracy.”

“We call on you, Mr. President, to announce in an unambiguous manner that you will not lend your hand and patronage as head of state to damage democracy and the judicial system,” the letter read.

Among the 46 signatories was former premier and IDF chief Barak, who challenged Herzog to pick a side on the issue during a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening. Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, former Shin Bet security service chiefs Nadav Argaman and Yuval Diskin, and ex-Mossad director Tamir Pardo also signed the letter.

The coalition’s plans to severely weaken the judiciary have sparked mass protests and warnings of the potential for extensive economic and social harm from top public figures including jurists, economists, business leaders, tech entrepreneurs, and reservists from top military units.

Protesters launched a “national day of disruption” on Wednesday against the proposals, blocking roads, disrupting train service, and marching in cities across the country.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak (left) with then-Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog at a press conference organized by the Labor party in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2017. (Flash90)

“We are witnessing that despite your best intentions and efforts, your conduct in recent weeks since the ‘president’s outline’ was published has not succeeded. The rift is growing, and it will be difficult to heal,” the ex-security chiefs wrote.

They demanded that any negotiations on judicial reform must be transparent, “to restore the people’s trust.”

“Any outline that comes out of these discussions that is not clearly based on liberal Jewish democracy in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence will not be acceptable to us and likely to the majority of the public,” they wrote, vowing to use “all legal and democratic means” to oppose the proposals.

“Should the legislation be stopped and canceled, we will immediately call for the establishment of a public committee under your auspices that will hold negotiations with the aim of formulating a constitution in agreement with the democratic Jewish state of Israel and in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence,” it read.

The sweeping reforms, which have been bulldozed through the Knesset in recent weeks, include the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges to the High Court, all but eliminating the court’s ability to review and strike down legislation, and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.

Critics say the plan will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the coalition and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Reservists block Route 1 to protest the government’s planned judicial overhaul, March 1, 2023 (Courtesy/Brothers in Arms)

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism and brushed the predictions aside, saying the proposals will strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.

Several recent polls have indicated the overhaul plans are broadly unpopular with the public.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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