Why was Isaac Herzog booed during massive Tel Aviv protest? - analysis

Booing at the mention of Netanyahu, Levin, or Shas leader Arye Deri was to be expected. But Herzog? What did he do to deserve the jeers?

 President Isaac Herzog attends the funeral of Rabbi Haim Drukman on December 26, 2022 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
President Isaac Herzog attends the funeral of Rabbi Haim Drukman on December 26, 2022
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

When Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, mentioned President Isaac Herzog during a speech Saturday night to the massive protest in Tel Aviv, the crowd booed.

Shraga called on Herzog to declare Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unfit to serve as prime minister, a power that the Basic Law: President of the State does not bestow on the president.

It wasn’t clear why the crowd booed Herzog.

Herzog’s tight-rope walk

Perhaps because Herzog hadn’t raised his voice against Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s judicial reform. Perhaps because he was doing little in public to stem the crisis. Perhaps because he did not threaten to refrain from signing laws passed by the Knesset dealing with judicial reform (one of the presidential duties is to sign all laws passed by the Knesset).

Whatever the reason, booing the president was jarring… and unusual.

 Thousands of Israelis protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, on haBima square in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Thousands of Israelis protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, on haBima square in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Booing at the mention of Netanyahu, Levin or Shas leader Arye Deri was to be expected. But Herzog? Presidents are not often booed in Israel. What did he do to deserve the jeers?

And that was not all.

Some 70 km. away in Jerusalem, the anti-judicial reform demonstrators opted to hold their protest in front of the President’s Residence. Not in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence, as was done in the past, but at the President’s Residence.

And there, using Herzog’s nickname “Buji,” they chanted, “The house is burning, Buji wake up.”

Less than 12 hours later, Herzog, whose public comments on this matter were up until this point pretty much relegated to a Twitter thread last week, stood in front of a microphone at the President’s Residence and commented on the matter.

Herzog seemed to be responding to the protesters, and to other calls for him to get more heavily involved, and essentially said he is wide awake and has been trying to mediate the issue.

“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.

The operative word there was “hope.” Herzog then tried to lower expectations.

“I humbly admit that I am not certain of this endeavor’s success,” he said. “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.”

No room for compromise in current Israeli political climate

Comments by the leading actors in this drama over the last few days give good reason for Herzog to want to lower expectations, because rather than giving any indication of a willingness to compromise, both sides are hunkering down behind their old positions, showing little inclination toward flexibility. On Thursday night, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said there was an attempt to crush the judicial system, and that the reform was an “unbridled attack” on the judiciary, “as if it were an enemy that must be attacked and subdued.”

Levin counterattacked fiercely, accusing Hayut of siding with opponents of the current government and “trying to set the streets on fire.”

“It turns out that there is another party in Israel,” he said. “A party that did not run in the elections that were held only two months ago, who placed herself above the Knesset and the decision of the people.”

Then came Saturday night’s protests and their accompanying impassioned speeches, including one from retired Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia, who pledged to fight the proposed reforms with “all the legal means at our disposal… as individuals, as groups and as a broad public.”

If the protesters had hoped that the massive show of force would soften the government, Netanyahu – during comments to the cabinet on Sunday – gave exactly no indication of that.

“Several months ago, there was a huge demonstration, the mother of all demonstrations,” he said. “Millions of people went into the streets in order to vote in the elections. One of the main topics that they voted on was reforming the judicial system.”

It is between those two poles that Herzog now has to maneuver. His challenge is twofold: to get the sides to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric; and to also get them to compromise on the issues – to agree to reform the judicial system, but not as dramatically as is being proposed.

Herzog’s problem is that outside of the moral authority of his office, and the persuasive powers of his personality, he does not have any real leverage over either side. Also, he will need to tread carefully because taking a position on such a divisive issue could cost him the one big asset that he does have: public trust in the institution of the presidency.

The last survey published by the Israel Democracy Institute dealing with public trust in government institutions, released last January, put public trust in the presidency at 60%, trailing only the IDF and having the second-highest ranking of the eight government institutions on the list. If he takes a political stand, that trust will undoubtedly suffer.

While there will be those who may argue that the president needs to stay above politics, and that his job is to be a unifying figurehead, there are precedents from the past where presidents got heavily involved in controversial subjects.

For example, in 1982, then president Yitzhak Navon threatened to resign if a governmental commission of inquiry was not established to investigate the Sabra and Shatila massacre. A commission was eventually set up.

 Israelis protest against the current Israeli government, in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023 (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Israelis protest against the current Israeli government, in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023 (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Are Israelis looking for Herzog to emulate Weizman?

Likewise, when Israel and Syria held peace talks in the winter of 1999-2000, under prime minister Ehud Barak, then-president Ezer Weizman  went well beyond the boundaries of the impartiality by threatening to quit if Israel voted against returning the Golan Heights in a referendum. That issue never came to a referendum.

It is possible that the protesters who booed Herzog Saturday night in Tel Aviv are expecting him to take a similar principled stand.

“It’s very difficult to be the president of the entire nation,” Weizman said at the time, “unless you’re willing to be deaf, mute and preferably blind.”

Herzog’s comment on Sunday showed that he was not blind or deaf to what was going on, nor would he remain mute. But the very cautious road he is taking on this matter shows that he is not giving up still trying to be the president of the entire nation.