Fearing ‘constitutional and social collapse,’ Israel’s president begs for compromise on judicial reform


(JTA) — Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, issued a stern warning to Israelis on Sunday night: The country is “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse” over proposed judicial reforms that would give lawmakers veto power over the Supreme Court.

In a televised address on the eve of a pivotal moment in the proposal’s trajectory, Herzog outlined a potential compromise that he said would protect Israel’s judiciary while addressing the concerns of the right-wing governing coalition, which says the Supreme Court has grown too liberal and unresponsive to public opinion.

Herzog, whose role is primarily ceremonial, exhorted the government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not to advance proposed legislation right now, while saying he would make himself available “at all hours of the day” for compromise talks. He said he feared a steep cost if the government moves forward with proposals that have animated massive protests as well as criticism from foreign governments and Jewish and business leaders.

“For a while, we have no longer been in a political debate, but are on the brink of constitutional and social collapse,” Herzog, a former leader of the Labor opposition party who once ran against Netanyahu, said early in the speech. “I feel, we all feel, that we are in the moment before a clash, even a violent clash. The gunpowder barrel is about to explode.”

Later, he added, “The biggest challenge of all is maintaining the unity of the people of Israel. As mentioned, I am fully committed to this, and if required, I may even request to appear before the committee in a precedent-setting and exceptional manner, in order to present the proposed principles in depth. I am ready to do anything — I repeat, everything — so that we can overcome this difficult dispute.”

Members of the political opposition quickly welcomed Herzog’s proposal for compromise talks, while some members of the governing coalition dismissed it. “The president’s compromise proposal is irrelevant,” tweeted Moshe Gafni, a member of Knesset who leads the United Torah Judaism party. “If they wanted a compromise, they should have come 30 years ago, not now.”

Netanyahu did not immediately respond. Earlier on Sunday, he had defended his government against the mounting protests. “I condemn the calls for a civil war just because one side lost the elections,” he said.

Herzog plaintive speech came as Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, prepares to consider the proposed reforms for the first time on Monday. Critics of the proposed changes from all over the country plan to call out of work and school to protest outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem. Some 200,000 Israelis across the country protested the reforms last night.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden weighed in against the proposals for the first time this weekend, saying that “an independent judiciary” is part of “the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy.” His administration responded positively to Herzog’s call for compromise.

Herzog’s speech was broadcast live on Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, which itself has faced criticism from members of the governing coalition.