Herzog: 'Israel is at edge of abyss,' civil war is a real threat

Herzog's plan does not have the support of the coalition after talks broke down, according to a number of reports

 President Isaac Herzog speaks on Israel's judicial reform on February 12, 2023 (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog speaks on Israel's judicial reform on February 12, 2023
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

“Those who think that a real civil war, with lives lost, is a line we will not cross, have no idea. Precisely now, 75 years into Israel’s existence, the abyss is at our fingertips,” President Isaac Herzog said in an introduction speech to what he called the “People’s Directive,” a comprehensive document intended to end the current conflict in Israel over the government’s proposed reforms of Israel’s judicial system.

The president did not present the directive itself, choosing instead to make an impassioned speech, during which the document was published online and on social media. The speech marked the culmination of weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations at the president’s residence by legal experts and Knesset coalition and opposition members.

"The last few weeks have been harming Israel's economy, security, political ties and especially Israeli cohesion."

President Isaac Herzog

“The last few weeks have been tearing us apart,” the president began. “They are harming Israel’s economy, security, political ties and especially Israeli cohesion. The family Shabbat meals have become an arena of struggle, friends and neighbors have become rivals. The conflicts are getting worse; The worries, the fears, the anxieties – they are all more tangible than ever,” Herzog said.

The president, however, said that the crisis was also an opportunity.

“I truly believe with all my heart that today, we are also facing a major, historic opportunity. An opportunity for balanced, smart and agreed-upon constitutional regulation of the relations of the branches of government in our Jewish and democratic country,” he said. “We are at a crossroads: a historical crisis or a defining constitutional moment.”

 Israeli president Isaac Herzog at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90) Israeli president Isaac Herzog at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

The president said that what most of Israel’s citizens wanted was “justice” and “peace” claiming that his directive provides both. The directive could replace the current legislation, the president proposed, and serve as a basis for a new legislative process. Neither of the sides would become winners, but the country would be the winner, Herzog said.

“I am a person of faith, but I am not naive. I know that as soon as I finish my words, and maybe even before that, opponents will arise from all sides. I also know that there will be those who will dodge responsibility, and that there will be those who have already agreed and will suddenly deny that they did so, or retract their agreement,” the president said.

“I tell you with responsibility: the People’s Directive reflects a broad, vast common denominator and a huge longing in the people for an agreed-upon compromise. The people want an agreed-upon solution, our country needs an agreed-upon solution, and it needs it now,” Herzog concluded.

Likud disapproved of Herzog's address

Approximately half an hour after the speech ended, the Likud expressed its disapproval.

“An attempt to reach an agreement is appropriate, but during the weeks that the coalition representatives held negotiations with the president, the opposition representatives refused to hold any negotiations,” Education Minister Yoav Kisch said in a statement on behalf of the party. “The outline presented by the president does deal with issues in the reform, but unfortunately it includes key clauses that only perpetuate the existing situation and do not create the necessary minimum balance between the government branches,” Kisch said.

Many of the Likud’s ministers and MKs then launched a series of tweets and statements that likely were dictated by the party, with the central argument being that the directive did not constitute real change.

According to a number of reports, the negotiations between the president’s representatives and the coalition broke down after Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Shas chairman Arye Deri and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman refused to make certain concessions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to make.

The Likud put out a statement soon after the president’s speech concluded that “the things that were attributed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the president’s directive are not true.”

Deputy Finance Minister MK Michal Waldiger (Religious Zionist Party) wrote soon after the directive was published: “Honorable president, I respect you very much and like you I wish for unity, but this is not the people’s directive, and surely not a compromise.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid responded: “Congratulations to the president of the state for [publishing] the People’s Directive. The State of Israel is being torn apart and we must make every effort to prevent economic, security and social disintegration that seriously harms national resilience.

“We must approach the president’s proposal out of respect for the position, the seriousness with which it was written and the values that underlie it,” he said.

“The coalition’s response to the proposal disrespects the institution of the presidency, represents complete disdain for the importance of the moment at hand, and erases the idea that we are one nation,” Lapid charged.

“As long as the coalition continues the blitz of extreme and predatory legislation, the danger to Israeli democracy has not passed and we will continue to fight for a Jewish, democratic, liberal and strong Israel.”

The National Unity Party announced that it was adopting the president’s proposal.

“We call on Netanyahu and all of the political actors to act responsibly at this hour of destiny, to adopt the proposal and begin to advance it immediately,” the party said.

The aforementioned breakdown in talks reportedly occurred during a meeting between Netanyahu and a number of senior members of the coalition and government earlier on Wednesday afternoon. A ban on interviews was announced soon after the meeting ended for all members of the Likud.

Two points reportedly caused the breakdown. The first is the number of High Court justices necessary to strike down a law. The current proposal is that this would require 80% of the judges, which is 12 out of 15. The second is the makeup of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which the coalition wishes to control.

A third issue that reportedly was unresolved was the override clause, which would give any 61-MK majority the power to block a law from being submitted to judicial review. United Torah Judaism MKs were quoted in recent days saying that they would not remain in the coalition if the override clause did not pass. This part of the reform is especially important to the party, as it would enable the coalition to immunize laws that grant haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men an exemption from IDF service, and block the High Court from striking them down, as it has done in the past.

However, a source in the party clarified on Wednesday that the override clause was a means to an end, and that the party would be willing to accept a demand for a majority that is larger than 61 MKs in order to immunize laws, if its demands regarding the draft were met in other ways.