It's time for Herzog to step up to the plate

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: With extreme voices dominating the public debate, the measured voice of the president needs to be heard loudly.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu behind him, approaches the members of the new government last month at the President’s Residence.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu behind him, approaches the members of the new government last month at the President’s Residence.

On Monday, January 9, National Unity Party head Benny Gantz addressed the burning issue of judicial reform at a faction meeting in the Knesset and raised the specter of civil war.

“If you continue along the path you are going, you will be responsible for the civil war brewing in Israeli society,” Gantz warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

His words, as well as comments by other leading politicians calling for massive protests and civil disobedience, prompted Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel to call the next day for the arrest of Gantz, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, and ex-Meretz MK Yair Golan. Fogel’s motion was seconded by another Otzma Yehudit MK, Almog Cohen, who said that if the opposition leaders continue “their incitement and desire for bloodshed on the streets... they will be put in handcuffs.”

The sluice gates, it seemed this week, burst open, and all kinds of waste – in the form of outlandish rhetoric – flooded into the public domain, threatening to wash away much of what stood in its path.

Gantz was not the first party leader in Israeli history to warn in early January of civil war: Menachem Begin did the same – though with much more pathos – 71 years ago on January 7, 1952.

Then, in the midst of the raw, emotional debate in the country about whether Israel should take reparation payments from Germany, Begin – who was the Herut Party leader – threatened civil war over the matter. At a mass demonstration at Zion Square in Jerusalem, which was just a short distance from where the Knesset was located at the time, Begin delivered an impassioned speech against entering into negotiations with Germany over the issue.

“There will not be negotiations with Germany. This is something for which we will lay down our lives,” he thundered.Referring to then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who pushed for the German payments, Begin said: “When you fired your cannon on me [during the Altalena episode], I gave the order ‘No’ [not to fire back]. Today I will give the order ‘Yes!’”

After he spoke, thousands of protesters marched to the Knesset, broke windows, pelted it with stones, and tried to break up the debate. Some 200 demonstrators were injured, along with 100 policemen, and dozens were arrested.

Nevertheless, two days later the vote passed. Once it did, Begin dropped his fierce opposition. He hinted this would be the case when he told the lawmakers, “This is our Knesset; this is our government. The majority rules. Let’s go to the people and try to convince them. If we don’t succeed, what can we do? This is our nation.”

Doubtful opposition will lower flames after reform passes

WILL HISTORY repeat itself today amid the feverish debate over the judicial reform? As things look now, the answer is yes... and no.

Yes, in the sense that the government seems determined to push through the reform, despite the fierce opposition to it, just as Ben-Gurion was determined to move forward with the reparations from Germany despite the bitter anger this generated.

But history will probably not repeat itself in that it is doubtful the opposition will drop its bitter opposition once the reform is passed.

Today, 71 years after one of the most serious threats of civil war the country ever faced, something else is needed to broker compromise and cool passions. That something might be President Isaac Herzog.

Have no illusions. No magic wand will cool down the current passions, just as there was no magic wand, for instance, to heal the deep rifts that followed the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Despite the heated rhetoric and pointing of fingers that followed the assassination, despite protests and accusations of culpability, the country then managed to avoid a descent into civil war. Several factors were responsible for this, including grassroots efforts to promote reconciliation and understanding. These efforts included memorial ceremonies for Rabin that were held in a spirit of unity.

In addition, the Second Intifada, which broke out five years later, shifted the focus from internal divisions to external threats.

Likewise, although there were concerns that the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 might lead to a civil war, that never materialized, because of an understanding by those leading the fight against the withdrawal – including prominent rabbis in the National-Religious camp – that there were redlines that could not be crossed even when fighting for a just cause. One of those redlines was lifting a hand to fight a fellow Jew.

IT TOOK some time, but this week Herzog started to raise his voice against the poisonous atmosphere being created.

“The values of the Declaration of Independence are the compass of our country – I will not allow them to be harmed,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “This is a sensitive and explosive period. I am aware of the voices being heard from here and from there, [I am aware] of all the pain, concerns and anxieties. This doesn’t go unnoticed and keeps me occupied."

Herzog said he was talking with various actors and “doing everything to bring about the existence of a dignified and respectful dialogue, hoping to reach as broad an understanding as possible.”

He then appealed to the elected officials and the citizens of the country from across the political spectrum to show restraint and responsibility.

“We must calm the passions and lower the flames,” he tweeted. “We have no other country.”

Nice tweet, but the question is whether a tweet is enough when the decibels have reached such a fever pitch. Might this not be the time for Herzog – who is widely respected and enjoys support from across the political spectrum – to take to the airwaves during prime time and, summoning up all his persuasive ability, urge everyone to calm down?

Although he does not wield significant leverage over Netanyahu or Justice Minister Yariv Levin to convince them of the need to compromise on the judicial reform, or over the leaders of the opposition to get them to tone down some of their rhetoric, he does have a degree of moral authority that he should use now to appeal to everyone to keep matters in proportion.

It’s one thing for Maariv to run a front-page headline on Wednesday with the words “calm down” in a giant font, and quite another if the president would use the authority of his office to send a similar message both to the public and to its representatives. The proverbial “responsible adult” is needed to tell people they have gone too far. Herzog is in a position to fill that role.

In his maiden speech to the Knesset after being sworn into office in July 2021, Herzog said that he was going straight from the parliament to President’s Residence, “and from there [will embark] on a journey among the rift lines and fault lines of Israeli society; a journey aimed at finding the unifying factor within the differences, the healing factor among the fragments.”

He needs to speed up that journey right now.

The diplomatic value added Herzog brought to the presidency became apparent shortly after he took office. Neither Naftali Bennett, who was prime minister at the time, nor Yair Lapid, who was foreign minister, had the diplomatic experience, contacts or international reputation that he had. He was therefore the person they asked to undertake particularly sensitive diplomatic missions.

Bennett described Herzog at one time as an “extraordinary diplomatic asset for solving problems.”

It was Herzog who traveled to Jordan shortly after being sworn into office to try to repair ties with Jordan’s King Abdullah, ties that suffered during the Netanyahu years. It was Herzog who was the first Israeli president to speak by phone with his Chinese counterpart, and it was Herzog who broke ground as the highest-ranking Israeli official ever to travel to the UAE.

Most importantly, it was Herzog to whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned when he decided to alter Turkish foreign policy and improve relations with Israel, and it was Herzog who traveled to Cyprus and Greece to assuage concerns there over the result of Israel’s suddenly warming ties with Turkey, their bitter historic rival.

Since the November elections, which triggered concerns in various capitals around the world, as well as within parts of the world Jewish community, about the direction of the government, it is Herzog who has been busy making the argument that the government should be judged on what it does, not on what some of its senior actors have said in the past.

But the current crisis visited upon the country must force Herzog’s attention inside the country. At a time when shrill and extreme voices are dominating the public debate, his measured voice calling for calm and compromise needs to be heard loudly.

As Mordecai said through messengers to Esther in the biblical book bearing her name: “Who knows, perhaps it is for such a time as this that you have attained [your] royal position.”