Rare address warns of bloodshed, urges end to 'madness'

Herzog warns of looming ‘societal collapse,’ lays out compromise on legal overhaul

President says current plan would have ‘negative impact on Israel’s democratic foundations’; floats 5 principles as basis for reform, pleads with government to delay legislation

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

President Isaac Herzog delivers a message to the nation from his office in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. (Screenshot/ Kan)
President Isaac Herzog delivers a message to the nation from his office in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. (Screenshot/ Kan)

In an impassioned and heartfelt speech Sunday night, President Isaac Herzog called for compromise over the government’s plans to radically overhaul the judicial system, warning of what he said was imminent conflict and even potential bloodshed.

Speaking from the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Herzog said the country was on the verge of “societal and constitutional collapse,” and implored citizens on both sides of the political aisle to refrain from violence, “all the more so violence against public servants and elected officials.”

The president said he was deeply concerned over the nature of the government’s reforms, stating that he worried they had the potential to harm “the democratic foundations” of the country. But he said that “change” and “reform” were nevertheless legitimate pursuits, and proposed a five-point plan as a general basis for a compromise agreement.

He particularly called on the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, who is orchestrating the legislative push, not to hold a vote Monday on sending an initial bill to the Knesset plenum for its first vote there as scheduled, but instead to consider his proposals in the committee first — a request that Rothman was quick to reject. (“In the end, the demand to halt or delay is an opposition demand,” Rothman said later Sunday. “We don’t have endless time to do things, and so stopping the legislation is an attempt to stop the government, and we have an obligation to our voters… We can hold talks between the first plenary reading and the second and third.”)

The government is currently advancing legislation that would overhaul the legal system, significantly curbing the High Court of Justice’s power to exercise judicial review, giving the government an automatic majority on the judicial selection committee, allowing lawmakers to overrule court rulings with a bare majority and allowing government ministers to appoint their own legal advisers.

The proposals have generated intense opposition from numerous quarters of Israeli society and led to weekly mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv and other major cities, as well as coordinated strikes, one of which is planned for Monday.

Israeli protesters lift national flags as they rally in central Tel Aviv, on February 11, 2023, against controversial legal reforms being touted by the government. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“I feel, we all feel, that we are a moment before a confrontation, even a violent confrontation,” said Herzog in the extraordinary speech, in which he expressed extreme disquiet and concern for the political and societal situation the country has found itself in.

“The powder keg is about to explode, and brothers are about to raise their hands against brothers. I request, I implore each and every one of you — my Israeli brothers and sisters: the threats [to Israel] from outside are big enough. Violence of any kind — and even more so violence against public servants and elected officials — is a red line that we must not cross under any circumstances,” he continued.

Change and reform could be legitimate, he contended, and conceded that there is a need for greater diversity in the judiciary, including on the Supreme Court.

Herzog said the longtime desire of the Israeli right-wing to reform the judicial system was understandable, elaborating that there is “a [political] camp that feels that an imbalance has developed between the branches of government, and that boundaries have been crossed in this matter over the years.”

And in a nod to critics of the judiciary, the president lamented a “lack of diversity” in the courts, including the Supreme Court — specifically mentioning the lacking representation of Sephardi-origin Jews — which he said “really disturbs” him.

“This pain felt by our brothers and sisters is real, and it is a big mistake to reject or ignore it,” said the president.

A woman watches President Isaac Herzog speech on the proposed changes to the legal system, at a home in Kibbutz Mishmar David, February 12, 2023. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

But he also asserted that the judiciary was a critical component of Israel’s well-being as a nation, hailing the Supreme Court as “the pride of our country” and lauding the achievements of the legal system.

“I believe that the sum of all parts of the reform, in its current form, raises deep concerns about their potential negative impact on the democratic foundations of the State of Israel,” asserted Herzog.

“Israel’s courts and judges protect Israeli society and the state, truly, against crime, against external [legal] attacks on IDF soldiers, against the loss of the foundations of justice, law and morality, and also against the trampling of individual rights,” said the president.

“We are a state governed by the rule of law thanks to the professional, responsible, independent and autonomous judiciary.”

He added that “millions of citizens here, alongside the Jews of the Diaspora and great supporters of Israel across the world, see the reform as a real threat to Israeli democracy.”

He said these people “fear that the reform in its current form erases and uproots all checks and balances, and fear that no one will be left to protect citizens from the power of government,” adding that this fear was sincere and should similarly not be dismissed or ignored.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman and Justice Minister Yariv Levin shake hands at a committee hearing, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Herzog said that, in recent weeks, he had met and spoken with leaders from all walks of Israeli life and from every field of expertise, including those in favor and those opposed to the government’s reform package.

Noting a series of recent deadly terror attacks, Herzog says the family of one victim asked him “to do everything to stop the madness.”

“From these long, deep, and comprehensive conversations, I can determine with certainty: We can reach a broad compromise which will put [the good] of Israel’s citizens above any dispute — it is possible,” said the president, proceeding to lay out a five-point plan to serve as a basis for such an agreement.

The first point he detailed was the imperative to legislate a new quasi-constitutional Basic Law: Legislation to clearly lay out the status of all legislation — ordinary laws and Basic Laws — and thus to enable constitutional stability.

“No more Basic Laws that sprout like mushrooms after the rain,” he urged, referring to constant changes to these laws in recent years.

This and all Basic Laws would be passed only with “wide agreement” and via four Knesset readings, rather than the usual three. There would be “no judicial oversight over a Basic Law legislated in that way.”

The Basic Law: Legislation would “protect the High Court’s right to judicial oversight” over non-basic laws, “via a bench and majority to be agreed upon.” It would also set out the terms by which the Knesset can override decisions by the court to strike down laws, “by means of a majority and a process that will be determined by dialogue and agreement.”

President of the Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut at a court hearing, December 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

His second principle aimed to ease “the judicial burden” on judges, which he said Israelis are paying a price for.

The third was designed to bring greater efficiency to the judicial system and thus help increase public confidence in the courts, with Herzog saying he will ask Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut to reach an agreement “that will put an end to the endless delays of justice and insufferable foot-dragging.”

Fourth, he called for the Judicial Selection Committee to be reconfigured so that no side has an automatic majority, saying all branches of government will have equal representation on the panel, alongside public figures who will be appointed “with coordination and agreement” between the justice minister and the Supreme Court president. The choice of judges “must be based on cooperation and agreement — not on capitulations and vetoes,” he said.

Finally, he warned that the judicial doctrine of “reasonableness” can be abused by the courts if not limited, while stressing that there is still a place for it “in cases of extreme unreasonableness,” as is currently the case.

Citing his familiarity with the positions of the sides, Herzog said he believed they can reach agreements on the terms.

Herzog said his five points were the “basis for an agreement” and appealed to Hayut, Levin and Rothman, “with a request from the bottom of my heart,” to “halt the demon dance, start talking … and lower the flames,” claiming that “agreement can be reached in a short time on the basis of the principles” he set out.

He also urged Rothman and the coalition not to bring some of the legislation to a vote for its first reading in the Knesset plenum on Monday, as is currently planned.

“Don’t bring the [current planned] legislation to a first reading” amid the current divisive background, he implored. “Weigh the principles I set out today as a basis for discussion before the first reading.”

Herzog said he was also willing to appear before the committee in person if needed to elaborate on his proposals.

He added that the office of the president was open to all, at all times, to advance the process.

The president concluded his address by stressing he was issuing his proposals and his plea for dialogue for the sake of all Israelis, “for the sake of the Declaration of Independence which is the foundation of our existence,” and “for the sake of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

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