Herzog urges lawmakers to simmer down as rhetoric around judicial reforms boils over

President reportedly asks justice minister to ‘soften’ judicial overhaul plan, vows to protect values laid out in Declaration of Independence, which he says should guide nation

File: President Isaac Herzog at the Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, December 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
File: President Isaac Herzog at the Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, December 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

President Isaac Herzog on Tuesday urged politicians to “lower the temperature” as increasingly shrill statements and warnings surrounding plans to overhaul Israel’s judicial system amped up tensions between the Knesset coalition and opposition, including predictions of civil war and calls to jail leading government critics.

At the same time, Herzog asked Justice Minister Yariv Levin to “soften” his planned changes to the judiciary and offered to host a discussion about the controversial court makeover, according to a report by the Kan public broadcaster. Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi also attended the Tuesday meeting with Herzog.

“I turn to you, elected officials from both ends of the political and public spectrums – show restraint and responsibility,” Herzog wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “We don’t have another country.”

The president also vowed to protect the values laid out in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which he called “our nation’s compass.”

“This is a sensitive and volatile time in Israel. I’m aware of the voices heard on both sides, as well as people’s sorrows, concerns and anxieties. It does not go unnoticed. I am not blind to this and am constantly occupied by it,” he said.

Herzog’s address to lawmakers came after far-right MK Zvika Fogel from the Otzma Yehudit party called for the arrest of opposition leaders and two former MKs, accusing them of “treason against the state” and saying they “are the most dangerous people right now.”

President Isaac Herzog presents Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu with the mandate to form a government at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022.(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Fogel’s remarks were echoed by his party colleague MK Almog Cohen, who told Channel 13 that if opposition leaders continue “their incitement and desire for bloodshed on the streets — they will be put in handcuffs.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid responded by saying, “This is how democracy falls apart, in a day.”

Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel speaks to the Kan public broadcaster in an interview, January 10, 2023. (Kan/screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

In a phone call with Herzog Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from the comments by far-right members of his coalition but did not condemn them.

“In a democratic country, we do not arrest the heads of the opposition,” he said. “Just as we do not call ministers Nazis and a Jewish government the Third Reich, nor do we encourage civil disobedience among the citizenry.”

The comment was a reference to placards displayed at a large rally against the judicial overhaul Saturday night in which members of the government were likened to Nazis.

Protesters hold signs, including one with Nazi-style imagery, at an anti-government rally at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. The sign on the left reads “Know from where you came and where you are going.” The second sign reads “We won’t allow ayatollahs.” (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said on Monday that the government’s judicial reform plan could lead to “civil war.” Urging the public to lawfully take to the streets, he added, “It’s time to go out en masse and demonstrate; it’s time to make the country tremble.”

Lapid told his Yesh Atid party that “this is extreme regime change” and that the reforms are “eliminating democracy.” Lapid promised to keep fighting in the streets in what he called “a war over our home.”

Justice Minister Yariv Levin holds a press conference announcing a far-reaching program of legal reforms at the Knesset on January 4, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The president’s remarks came amid reports of anti-government protesters reporting discrimination and violence directed toward them.

Several protests have been held against Netanyahu’s hardline government since Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced the sweeping and controversial judicial reforms last week.

On Monday, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir ordered police to crack down on the protesters if they stood in traffic or waved “inciting” signs, and said water cannons should be used on demonstrators. “If you use water cannons in Jerusalem [on Haredi protesters], I expect you to do the same in Tel Aviv,” he said, referencing violent protests in Jerusalem often met with force from police.

During a meeting between Ben Gvir and police officials on Tuesday, however, the minister was told that officers would act with restraint and won’t change current policies — including not arresting people temporarily blocking roads — so long as protesters remain cooperative.

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