Twice in history, Jewish state 'collapsed before turning 80'

Herzog warns Israel’s leaders: Clash over judicial overhaul ‘could consume us all’

President cites ‘deep concerns’ if coalition proposals are rushed through Knesset, urges dialogue, says Israel at a fateful moment: ‘This powder keg is about to explode’

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

Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Ashmoret conference in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2023.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Ashmoret conference in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2023.

President Isaac Herzog on Tuesday warned that Israel is on course to tear itself apart, amid the government’s planned radical shakeup of the judicial system and mounting public opposition, and urged the country’s leadership to avoid confrontation and instead engage in patient dialogue and constructive debate.

“The democratic foundations of Israel, including the justice system, and human rights and freedoms, are sacred, and we must protect them and the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence,” Herzog said, addressing the Ashmoret education conference in Tel Aviv. “The dramatic reform, when done quickly without negotiation, rouses opposition and deep concerns among the public,” he said.

“I see the sides prepared and ready all along the front for an all-out confrontation over the character of the State of Israel, and I am anxious we are on the brink of an internal struggle that could consume us all,” Herzog said.

Herzog issued a plea to Israel’s leaders to “show responsibility… take the time needed for this critical discussion,” and warned, “The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within, and I’m telling you loud and clear: This powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency.”

In addition to the mass protests in Tel Aviv — where mentions of Herzog have drawn jeers for his ostensible inaction — thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in front of the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, demanding he take a clear stance in defense of the judiciary.

Herzog has called on the government to listen to the voices of diverse communities. He is also engaged in efforts at mediation, meeting with Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, opposition leader Yair Lapid, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

However, Herzog has explicitly noted that his efforts may fail.

On Monday, Lapid said he had asked Herzog to set up a Presidential Committee to come up with a “balanced” judicial reform, and that the president was considering the idea. Herzog later confirmed talking with Lapid as part of his ongoing efforts to avert “a historic constitutional crisis” over the coalition’s proposals.

“We need to strive for broad agreements,” said Herzog Tuesday, adding, “I see signs of goodwill.”

“During the reigns of the House of David and the Hasmoneans, Jewish states were established in the land of Israel, and twice they collapsed before reaching their 80th anniversary. Let me emphatically emphasize: I am not a prophet of doom, I never was and never will be. I am a great believer in the resilience of the State of Israel, and the strength of the wonderful people who live here,” Herzog said. “And yet we are at a fateful, testing moment that will influence our people and our state.”

Israelis, he said, must “take responsibility and protect what we have built here.”

Protesters against the proposed changes to the justice system at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on January 21, 2023 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Education Minister Yoav Kisch and Israel Teachers Union chair Yaffa Ben David, who were in attendance, wished the president luck in his efforts to bridge the gaps on the issue in their respective remarks at the conference.

As presented by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the coalition’s proposals would severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

Despite intense public criticism over the plans, Channel 12 reported on Monday that Levin is determined to push through his original reforms and has no intention of compromising. The report said that Levin was giving indications of a willingness to talk in order to calm the waters and buy himself time to prepare the legislation.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin speaks in support of Aryeh Deri during a Shas party meeting, at the Knesset on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his speech, Herzog announced his vision for the 80th anniversary of the State of Israel in 2028, calling for the President’s Residence to serve as a “protected space for managing disputes and bridging rifts” amid the crisis.

He also unveiled a project establishing an educational center for fostering coexistence, as well as a space for discreet discussions on core issues. He did not provide details on how the program will be implemented but said that active steps will be taken to exchange opinions and deal with disputes.

Tal Schneider and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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