PM says he welcomes 'all initiatives' to find common ground

Herzog tells coalition to abandon its ‘oppressive’ overhaul package, seek consensus

Decrying ‘nightmare’ crisis over judicial revamp, president says current planned legislation undermines democracy, asserts he has reached behind-the-scenes agreement on most issues

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

President Isaac Herzog delivers an address to the nation over the government's judicial overhaul legislation, March 9, 2023. (GPO)
President Isaac Herzog delivers an address to the nation over the government's judicial overhaul legislation, March 9, 2023. (GPO)

President Isaac Herzog on Thursday night denounced the government’s judicial overhaul legislation as “oppressive” and harmful to democracy, and called for it to be abandoned immediately and replaced by a framework for consensual reform.

In a special address to the nation delivered in stark and grave tones, the president said the national crisis over the coalition’s effort to weaken the judiciary was “a disaster” and “a nightmare.” He insisted it was the responsibility of “the leaders of the state” in the government to put aside the breakneck legislative charge lest the country descends into a societal and constitutional abyss.

Herzog’s forceful speech marked the first time he had openly spoken out against one political bloc during the current political crisis, and, like the Knesset opposition parties, unambiguously opposed the government’s bills as anti-democratic.

During his speech, the president announced that in his discussions with representatives on both sides of the political divide he has managed to create a formula for agreement on the majority of the major disputes at the heart of the crisis, and said this should outline should be passed to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for debate in place of the government’s current, fast-advancing legislation.

But Herzog added that the opposition as well as the coalition needed to put the country above politics in order to prevent Israel from “falling off the edge of a cliff.”

Speaking in Rome’s Spanish Synagogue during a visit to Italy soon after Herzog’s speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he welcomes “all initiatives” to find agreement and common ground, including that of Herzog.

“We must remember that, especially these days, days of argument and debate within Israel — we must remember we are one nation with a common future,” Netanyahu said to applause. “We are all brothers. Brothers and sisters.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Rome’s Spanish Synagogue on March 9, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The president’s comments came as the coalition was poised to embark next week on what appears to be a determined push to enact the first core elements of its radical legal and judicial reform package, and against the background of mass protests and disturbances across the country on Thursday.

“The package of legislation currently being discussed in the [Constitution] Committee needs to disappear, and quickly,” intoned Herzog.

“It is wrong, it is oppressive, it undermines our democratic foundations. And therefore, it must be replaced with another plan, one that has consensus, and immediately,” he continued.

Israelis protest against the government’s controversial judicial reform bill in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“To the leaders of the country, the coalition and the government, I say: we are at the point of no return. This is a moment to be or to desist – to choose consensus and realize a foundational constitutional moment that will grow and build us up for years and generations to come, or to deteriorate into a constitutional, security, social and economic abyss.”

Herzog said he had been working on alternative proposals for the last ten weeks in discussions with players from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum, and that those discussions had borne fruit.

“I was able to bring about a situation where the gaps have been greatly reduced. There is agreement on most issues. True, not on everything, but on the vast majority,” declared the president, saying the government’s legislation, some of which have already been passed in a first reading in the Knesset plenum and some which are now ready for a first reading, could now be set aside.

“Certainly,” the president said, enough had been agreed on so far “to abandon the legislation currently being advanced, and to bring instead, to the discussions at the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, a different, agreed framework.”

The basis exists, he says, “for a rapid summation, in which the only winners are the State of Israel and its citizens.”

Herzog specified the supreme values that must be safeguarded: “Our democracy is a supreme value. An independent, strong, judiciary is a supreme value. The preservation of human rights, for men and women alike, with a stress on minorities and the special, rich Israeli mosaic, are a supreme value,” he said, highlighting the opposition’s standpoint.

“Yes, diversifying the judicial system so that it is a home for all citizens is also a supreme value,” he added, in a nod to the coalition’s position.

“And a healthy, stable and clear relationship between the branches of government is also a supreme value,” he stressed.

Said the president: “This is a possible formula. This is a formula within our grasp.”

“You must now make a decision – coalition and opposition alike – whether the State of Israel and its citizens are above everything, or whether egos and narrow political interests will kick us off the edge of the cliff,” concluded Herzog.

“There is one choice: travesty or a solution. If you choose the path you have gone down until now, the chaos will be on you. History will judge you. Take responsibility immediately.”

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