Levin: 'It's a morning of hope' for masses of Israelis

Herzog: Feeling of ‘sorrow’ after judicial vote; onus on government to negotiate

President says he regrets coalition did not heed his call for compromise; says it’s not too late to hold talks before final legislation passes; justice minister: We will press on

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

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

President Isaac Herzog said Tuesday that there was a feeling of “sorrow” in the country, after the Knesset passed the first reading of a bill that makes up a significant part of the controversial judicial overhaul, and said the burden lies with the government to reach out and negotiate with the opposition.

The legislation, passed early Tuesday, aims to amend the Basic Law: The Judiciary to cement government control over judicial appointments and revoke the High Court’s ability to review Basic Laws.

“This is a very difficult morning; there is a feeling of sorrow, there is no feeling of celebration. There is a feeling of sadness because many citizens from all parts of Israeli society, [including] many people who voted for this coalition… are anxious about the unity of the nation,” Herzog said.

Herzog said he was disappointed that his calls to negotiate were not heeded, but said that talks were still urgently required.

“We must make every effort so that after this vote it will be possible to continue negotiations to reach an agreed-upon outline that will take us out of this difficult period, into a period of agreed-upon constitutional reform,” Herzog said.

“It is not a done deal because the first reading passed; it still needs a second and third reading,” Herzog said in an address to the People of the Country conference, hosted by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily and Ynet news site.

He put the onus on the government to lead the way toward compromise.

“There is extra responsibility on those who are advancing the legislation,” he said. “Prove that generosity wins, and find a way to bring the opposition to negotiations.”

“But I definitively say: the opposition also needs to enter into talks,” he added.

Speaking after Herzog, Justice Minister Yariv Levin appeared to dismiss his call.

“The masses of people have waited decades for this to occur, for them it is a morning of hope. We will press on with determination to complete the reforms,” he said.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin addresses the Knesset, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism), head of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee who is chaperoning the bills, told Army Radio: “This is not a morning of sorrow. It’s a morning in which a huge part of the people… has erupted in roars of joy.”

“Yes, sometimes the joy of one person can create sorrow in another, certainly in a political disagreement,” he said. “After 30 years of judicial dictatorship, the State of Israel is on the path to democracy.”

Leaders of the opposition, such as Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, have been refusing to come to the table as long as the coalition is advancing its legislative agenda. Others, like Labor leader Merav Michaeli, scorn the idea of negotiation, pointing to public protests as the only means of stymieing the judicial reform plans.

Sponsored by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the bill that passed overnight Monday-Tuesday would transform the selection process for judges, effectively putting judicial appointments under full governmental control. It also would block the High Court from exercising oversight over Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. (This block is also aimed at preventing High Court scrutiny over the same Basic Law amendment bill that creates the mechanism.)

Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, near the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The vote on the legislation came after tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the Knesset waving Israeli flags and chanting “de-mo-cra-cy.”

Herzog presented a compromise proposal last week and urged a halt to the legislative process while negotiations could be conducted. However, the sides have not entered into talks, after the coalition rejected Lapid’s precondition that the bills be halted for 60 days.

Herzog said on Tuesday, “It’s possible to solve the division. Most of the nation wants a solution. Most of the nation wants an agreed-upon framework.”

A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute released Tuesday found that a majority of Israelis oppose the government’s proposals.

“I put forward an outline. I recommended principles that were accepted by many officials, including in the Knesset, including from the government and the opposition. We need to find a way to sit people together until white smoke comes out and a solution is found… so that we don’t say later, ‘How did we lose this opportunity?'” Herzog asked.

Protesters get ejected from a Knesset debate on the coalition’s first judicial reform bill, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Herzog added that he feared “disturbing developments” emerging from the clash between supporters and opponents of the proposals.

“I see impossible and intolerable expressions of hate. This cannot go on. I say to everyone, Stop for a moment… Now after the vote, there is an opportunity. When they say ‘negotiations,’ prove that you intend to negotiate.”

Herzog told the conference that the reforms stemmed from many years of “deep frustrations” and criticisms of the judicial system. However, he said, this did not excuse undermining the separation of powers.

The legal overhaul, advanced by Levin and backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would also severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a bare majority of just 61 MKs.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms would undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Netanyahu and other coalition members have dismissed the criticism, and Netanyahu insists the reform is overdue and will strengthen Israeli democracy.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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