Israel president floats plan to prevent ‘constitutional collapse’
FILE PHOTO: People hold a banner during a protest against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition and its proposed judicial reforms to reduce powers of the Supreme Court in Tel Aviv, Israel February 11, 2023. REUTERS/Amir Coh
By Maayan Lubell
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel’s president floated a compromise plan on Sunday to spare the country what he described as a «constitutional collapse» and possible violence, over a contested judicial overhaul sought by the hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The rare prime-time television speech by President Isaac Herzog, whose figurehead role is designed to unite an often fractious society, included an appeal to coalition lawmakers to hold off on initial legislation steps in parliament which some had planned to begin this week.
But Justice Minister Yariv Levin poured cold water on the idea of postponing, saying in a statement responding to Herzog’s speech that while he did not oppose dialogue this «should not be linked to progress in the legislation proceedings».
The centre-left opposition, accusing Netanyahu of seeking greater control over the court system even as he himself is being tried on corruption charges, have mounted demonstrations and called for nationwide protest strikes at the Knesset on Monday.
Netanyahu — who denies wrongdoing in his trial — says the reforms are aimed at restoring balance between Israeli authorities.
«We are on the brink of constitutional and social collapse,» Herzog said. «I feel — we all feel — that we are barely a moment away from a collision — and even from a violent collision.»
There was a similar if more veiled call by the White House, which generally shies away from discussing Israel’s internal affairs.
«The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary,» U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement quoted by the New York Times on Sunday.
«Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.»
Recent polls have shown relatively little support for the proposed judicial changes as they stand.
Herzog urged immediate talks between the government and the opposition, based on five principles. These would include legislating a process for enacting Israel’s quasi-constitutional basic laws and barring any Supreme Court interference in them.
Another principle would more clearly define the authority of the Supreme Court, which the government has accused of overreach. Herzog also called for a shake-up of the committee for selecting justices — but differed with the government on the format, arguing that «no side should have a built-in majority».
Opposition head Yair Lapid said that Herzog’s proposal was a worthy one but that until understandings are reached «the struggle will not be halted and the protest will not stop».
Israel’s five main banks, Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, Israel Discount Bank, Mizrahi-Tefahot and First International Bank of Israel, in a rare such statement voiced support for Herzog’s bid to reach broad understandings, which they said would benefit Israel’s economy.
Legal experts, economists and former security and economic officials, who include Netanyahu confidants and appointments, have warned his government’s judicial proposals could have serious diplomatic and economic fallout.