Herzog tells foreign envoys mass protests and internal debate are a ‘mark of pride’

Hundreds rally outside president’s home in call for judicial compromise; torch-lighter Avigdor Kahalani: ‘Shut [negotiators] in a room and don’t let them out’ until deal is reached

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (center) pose for a photo with honorary consuls in the President's Residence in Jerusalem on Independence Day, April 26, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (center) pose for a photo with honorary consuls in the President's Residence in Jerusalem on Independence Day, April 26, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog told a group of foreign diplomats on Wednesday that the ongoing mass demonstrations in Israel over attempts to alter the makeup and powers of the judiciary are a sign of strength, not weakness.

Hosting a reception in Jerusalem for envoys to mark Israel’s 75th Independence Day, the president said that Israel’s “independence, and the democratic pillars on which it rests, must never be taken for granted and must always be defended.”

Herzog added that “debate and disagreement in a democracy are not only natural. They are critical.” As Israel marks its 75th birthday, the fact that “Israelis are fiercely debating fundamental questions about our system of checks and balances demonstrates that our democratic discourse is vibrant and that our citizens are fully engaged,” the president said. “This, too, is a mark of pride.”

He hit out against Israel’s enemies, naming “Iran and its proxies in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon,” for seeking to “capitalize on Israel’s domestic debate, misreading the vitality of our internal democratic discourse as a weakness.”

The president told those gathered that he has “been working around the clock to facilitate dialogue that can help us reach broad national consensus on these critical questions.”

Herzog has been hosting opposition and coalition figures over the past several weeks in an attempt to help the sides reach an agreement on the contentious judicial overhaul. While the talks were paused over Memorial Day and Independence Day, they are expected to restart on Thursday.

President Isaac Herzog delivers an address at the President’s Residence on April 26, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paused the legislation last month to allow for negotiations, the Knesset is slated to reconvene on Sunday amid opposition fears that the government will pick up where it left off.

Before Netanyahu froze the government’s legislative efforts, Herzog struck a somewhat different tone about the disagreements raging in Israeli society. In mid-March, the president warned that the country was on the cusp of “civil war” and an “abyss,” unless a compromise could be reached.

As Herzog wrapped up a series of receptions Wednesday for Independence Day, a few hundred protesters rallied outside the President’s Residence calling for the sides to reach a broadly accepted compromise deal.

The demonstrators hailed from a group calling itself Kriat Haskama (“Call to Compromise,” which is very similar to the Hebrew for “wake-up call”), which claims that a large majority of Israelis wish to see a deal struck that is acceptable to both those who want to transfer many court powers to the government and those who demand the court’s ability to act as a check on government power be preserved.

“Our goal is to send a clear message to decision-makers that we, proponents and opponents of the reform, are in favor of broad agreement,” one figure from the group was quoted telling the Ynet news site.

Ex-general and former minister Avigdor Kahalani — who was honored Tuesday night as a torch-lighter at the official state ceremony that launched Independence Day — spoke at the rally outside the President’s Residence on Wednesday evening.

“When they asked me to come here, I said I would show up… because I believe in this path,” Kahalani told the crowd, noting he had stayed away from protests until now.

“It’s not so bad to compromise a little bit,” Kahalani continued. “Strong people know how to compromise. And to you, the president, I say: ‘Shut them in the room and don’t let them leave until the formula is found.'”

Supporters of the overhaul — backed by a range of government ministers — have called on the public to attend a mass pro-government rally, dubbed the “million-person aarch,” in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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