Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke to the nation last week. He addressed the increasingly contentious judicial reform proposal before the Knesset that some view as a fundamental threat to democracy in the Jewish state. Herzog proposed a compromise approach to the legislation.
And he warned ominously that civil war could lie ahead if the heavy-handed reform effort continues unabated. “He who thinks that a real civil war, one that costs lives, is a line we won’t reach, is out of touch,” he said. “In this moment, of all moments, in the 75th year of the state of Israel, the abyss is within reach.”
For weeks, Israelis have turned out in mass demonstrations to oppose the Netanyahu government’s plan to make the judiciary subordinate to the government. The legislation and the government’s unbending pursuit of it has attracted the ire of reservists, retired generals and former prime ministers. They say the legislation will make Israel less democratic and rip away legal protections for minorities. And, in making their points, the protesters don’t hold back. They accuse those promoting the hardline reform effort of abuse of power and blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for encouraging the effort: “Those who are in favor of the state of Israel should be against the prime minister of the state of Israel,” former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.
Herzog’s compromise approach struck the right chord. He acknowledged that structural changes to Israel’s judicial system are necessary and “in the best interest of the country,” but maintained that change of this magnitude needs to be pursued logically and through an orderly process rather than imposed by the controlling faction of the Knesset.
Netanyahu wasn’t moved. He rejected Herzog’s proposal, claiming that “central elements of the proposal [Herzog] offered just perpetuate the current situation and don’t bring the necessary balance between the branches.” Netanyahu’s slap down was bemoaned by those seeking to navigate a consensus resolution and celebrated by those supporting the government’s bulldozer approach. We join those who are disappointed.
The judicial reform proposals are important. Israel does not have a formal, written constitution. It only has one house of parliament in which laws are formulated. Israel needs an independent judiciary that is not controlled by a coalition majority to rule on legal issues. That’s not to say the current system has no problems. But it does support Herzog’s proposed engagement, dialogue and compromise with respect to such a fundamental issue of government structure and policy.
Israel’s president has limited power. The role is largely ceremonial. But Israeli presidents have increasingly used their position to address sensitive issues while trying to unify the nation. That is the role Herzog is trying to fill. And his effort should be embraced.
At a time when Israel is in turmoil with ever-growing mass demonstrations, worried conferences between Israeli leadership and Diaspora Jews, mounting Palestinian unrest and allies and friends keeping their distance, we are concerned that Netanyahu seems isolated and out of step. And we see a disturbing thematic similarity between Netanyahu and the hard-hearted Pharaoh of Egypt in the Exodus story. That leader rejected compromise and lost it all.