Slammed for inaction, Herzog says trying to mediate on judicial overhaul, might fail

President says he’s talking with ‘relevant parties’ in attempt at ‘averting historic constitutional crisis’ – but admits may not work; Lapid defends not attending Tel Aviv protest

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 said Sunday that he has been working for a number of days to mediate discussions between relevant political figures over the hardline government’s contentious planned judicial overhaul.

The announcement came following a protest outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Saturday evening, and after mention of his name in a speech at a mass rally in Tel Aviv drew jeers.

“We are in the grips of a profound disagreement that is tearing our nation apart,” Herzog said in a statement. “This conflict worries me deeply, as it worries many across Israel and the Diaspora.”

“Over the past week, I have been working full time, by every means, making nonstop efforts with the relevant parties, with the aim of creating wide-reaching, attentive, and respectful discussion and dialogue, which I hope will yield results,” he said.

Herzog described his “two critical roles” as “averting a historic constitutional crisis and stopping the continued rift within our nation.”

“The President’s Office is perhaps the only place today that enjoys the confidence of all parties and is capable of hosting discussions on the subject in a manner accepted by all — behind closed doors and with open doors,” Herzog added.

Protesters against the planned judicial overhaul outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on January 14, 2023 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Herzog said he was aware that he could fail in his efforts.

“I humbly admit that I am not certain of this endeavor’s success. There is goodwill from the various parties with whom the responsibility lies, but there is still a long way to go and significant gaps remain,” he said.

Herzog’s remarks came the day after a massive demonstration was held in Tel Aviv against the coalition’s plans for sweeping changes in the judiciary and its relationship with the government, weakening the courts’ ability to rein in parliament and granting the government greater control over judge selection.

Critics say the overhaul will significantly impact Israel’s democratic character, unbalance its system of checks and balances, and leave minorities helpless.

In Tel Aviv, the crowd booed Herzog during a speech by Eliad Shraga, the chairman of the Movement for the Quality of Government.

Shraga called on Herzog to declare Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as unfit to serve as prime minister.

In Jerusalem, over a thousand people protested outside the President’s Residence, where they called on Herzog to “wake up.”

“Bougie, wake up, the house is burning,” the demonstrators chanted, referring to the president by his nickname. “Bougie, Bougie, wake up, the public is worth more.”

Herzog responded Sunday by saying that while he is focusing on his efforts to mediate, he respects all those who have been protesting, and “I respect the criticism toward me.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader MK Yair Lapid on Sunday defended his decision not to attend the Tel Aviv rally, despite having urged his own party’s activists and the general public to be there.

He told the Ynet news site that he did so because, he said, the protest organizers had felt his presence would make the event too political in nature.

“Although I think it is political and it should be political,” Lapid said. “So I announced in advance that I would not come and that Yesh Atid people would come — both the activists and the Knesset members.”

MK Benny Gantz, the head of the opposition National Unity party, did attend and addressed the crowd informally.

National Unity leader MK Benny Gantz arrives at an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Naomi Lanzkron/Times of Israel)

Lapid also said he agreed with former president Reuven Rivlin, who has suggested a public referendum be held on the overhaul.

“The people are not with [the government], because that is not what they told them [would happen] in these elections. They told them something completely different,” Lapid said.

“[The voters] did not go to the polls and say ‘We are going to vote for Israel to stop being a democracy, for Israel to stop being a country where freedom of expression is allowed,” Lapid said.

Rhetoric over the planned overhauls and pushback against them heated up last week when opposition lawmaker Gantz accused Netanyahu of “leading toward civil war,” and Lapid urged his supporters to take to the streets as part of a “war over our home.”

That prompted a lawmaker of the coalition-member far-right Otzma Yehudit party to call for Gantz and Lapid to be arrested for “treason.”

Herzog then called on politicians to “lower the temperature” in their discourse over the overhaul.

Netanyahu, speaking Sunday at the weekly cabinet meeting, also responded to the protests, declaring he would not be persuaded by “slogans” and vowing to see the sweeping judicial changes enacted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), chairs a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on January 15, 2023. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

He cited his victory in November 1 elections as an answer to those who claim the government is not acting in the name of the Israeli people.

Netanyahu urged the opposition to “not get carried away with inflammatory slogans of the destruction of the state and civil war,” and claimed that when he led the opposition no such remarks had been made against the government.

“We expect the leaders of the opposition to behave in a similar spirit,” he said.

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