Herzog says compromise over judicial overhaul program achievable ‘within days’

Smotrich accuses Lapid of ‘declaring war on Israel’ in criticizing sweeping reform; opposition leader says finance minister causing societal tensions with ‘hasty legislation’

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

President Isaac Herzog speaks at a Bible lesson as part of the 929 initiative at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, February 19, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)
President Isaac Herzog speaks at a Bible lesson as part of the 929 initiative at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, February 19, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)

President Isaac Herzog said on Sunday he believed a compromise agreement for judicial reform based on proposals he made last Sunday could be achieved in a matter of days, following conversations he held with leaders of the coalition and opposition last week.

Speaking from his official residence in Jerusalem, Herzog expressed deep concern about ongoing societal unrest over the government’s plans, saying he feared for the future of the country.

Herzog’s comments came during his weekly 929 Project Bible study class, where he recalled the fate of historic sovereign Jewish states.

“I see the rifts and fissures between us, which are becoming deeper and more painful at this time, and I cannot help but reflect seriously on the fact that, twice in history, a Jewish state arose in the Land of Israel and twice it collapsed before reaching its 80th year,” said the president, noting that Israel was coming up for its 75th anniversary.

“Over the last week, I have been wholeheartedly invested in meetings and communications with all sides of the map and influential figures, to discuss the discord we face, including with leaders from the coalition and opposition, with the aim of doing everything to reach dialogue and agreements,” he continued. “From all my discussions, it is clear that on the basis of the principles I presented last week, it is possible to come to agreements in a relatively short timeframe. Even within days — not years, not even months.”

Just before Herzog made his comments, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich unleashed a broadside at Yair Lapid, accusing the opposition leader of thwarting dialogue over the government’s judicial overhaul, and alleging that he was seeking “a civil war.”

Finance Minister and head of the Religious Zionism Party Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a conference of the Religious Zionism party in Jerusalem, February 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Smotrich said the government would not halt its legislative drive and that the first part of the radical reform program would be passed in its first Knesset reading on Monday, although he claimed he was open to dialogue and compromise over the program and had made such a commitment to Herzog during a recent conversation.

In a pugnacious speech that was enthusiastically received by party officials and activists, Smotrich argued that the radical legal program being advanced by the government was a necessary remedy to judicial activism, and insisted that the recent elections won by the right-wing, religious bloc gave the coalition a full mandate to enact it.

“Yair Lapid is the one who is purposefully harming the chances of dialogue,” the leader of the far-right Religious Zionism told a party conference in Jerusalem, and claimed the Yesh Atid leader and former prime minister had “declared war against the State of Israel.”

“Lapid isn’t interested in broad national agreement. He isn’t interested in the good of the State of Israel. He isn’t interested in preventing a rift in the nation. Yair Lapid wants a civil war,” he declared.

In his speech, the finance minister also took aim at US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, telling him not to intervene in the government’s radical legal reform program, after the ambassador urged the government to “pump the brakes” on the issue.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides speaks to the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Facebook screenshot)

“We very much appreciate the friendship and the strong and strategic alliance between Israel and the US,” Smotrich said. “We have always been diligent not to intervene in internal US matters, and therefore we expect that they too not intervene in our internal matters such as the legal reforms or the division of authorities between myself and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.”

Lapid hit back at Smotrich, accusing the Religious Zionism leader himself of responsibility for the societal tensions that have erupted in the wake of the government’s reform program.

“Bezalel, you are no longer a hilltop youth with gasoline cans,” quipped Lapid in reference to suspicions that Smotrich was involved in plans for civil disobedience and even arson during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaks at a protest against the judicial overhaul, February 13, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/ Flash90)

“In senior positions, it is better not to panic so quickly, and not to blame others for the damage that you, not me or the US administration, are doing,” retorted Lapid.

“Those who want to prevent civil war do not promote hasty and violent legislation that tears the people apart. I was the first to suggest going to the president for talks.

“Instead of stopping and talking, you run without brakes with insane legislation that is harming the economy, harming security, and destroying the unity of the people,” he added.

The legal overhaul, advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, 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.

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