Out in the street, the police are using water cannons, stun grenades and officers on horseback to prevent “National Disruption Day” protesters from blocking the country’s main highway.
Over in the Knesset, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved for a Knesset reading another part of the judicial reform laws amid near pandemonium in the committee’s chamber.
And out at the President’s Residence, President Isaac Herzog has not given up on his effort to find common ground between advocates and opponents of judicial reform.
But since the politicians pushing for and pushing against the reform still won’t sit down and have a civilized dialogue over the matter, Herzog is overseeing talks between legal academics and think tanks about possible compromise solutions.
Earlier this week Herzog met representatives of policy forums and think tanks from both the Left and the Right -- the Israel Democracy Institute, Tachlith - The Institute for Israeli Policy, the Kohelet Forum, the Jewish People’s Policy Institute, Reichman University’s Rubenstein Center for Constitutional Challenges, and the Israeli Law Professors Forum for Democracy -- who are involved in discussion groups aimed at finding a middle ground. According to various media reports, while the groups have found common ground on many of the issues in the reform, the manner of selecting High Court of Justice judges remains the most difficult nut to crack.
Predictably, though depressingly, Herzog is being skewered publicly for encouraging these “back channel” talks by those out in the street, and criticized privately for these efforts by some in the Knesset. As if compromise was a dirty word, as if the critics want to see the ugly scenes and the mass protests in the street carry on as if they want to see the chaos and pandemonium in the Knesset committees continue endlessly.
FORMER LABOR Party head Shelly Yachimovich, who Herzog defeated for that party’s leadership in 2013, wrote a scathing op-ed in Wednesday’s Yedioth Ahronoth saying that if Herzog does not “grasp the magnitude of the hour, the intensity of the danger and the fact that not everything is worthy of compromise,” then he will go down in history as the president who whitewashed that which is most foul.
She was not alone
A group of former top security officials – foremost among them bitter Netanyahu critics and foes Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon, Dan Halutz, Tamir Pardo and Yuval Diskin – signed a letter calling on the president to ensure that all discussion regarding the judicial reform be transparent.
“Any outline that comes out of these discussions, that does not have as its clear foundation a liberal Jewish democracy in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, will not be acceptable to us – or, apparently, to the majority of the public,” they wrote.
Already last Saturday night, Barak took aim at Herzog, asking at the central protest in Tel Aviv whether he was to be considered in the camp trying to destroy the Supreme Court or in the camp trying to defend the Declaration of Independence.
The president is, therefore, in a very uncomfortable position. He has no real political authority, and what moral authority he has stems from the perception of representing the national consensus. And that is what makes his current situation so tricky: there is no national consensus on this issue.
The leaders of the protest movement, those who called for Wednesday’s “National Disruption Day,” are striving to create the perception that they represent the majority – that the majority of the country is opposed to the reform. How else, they argue, can they get hundreds of thousands of people onto the street for eight weeks in a row to protest the proposed judicial changes?
The coalition, on the other hand, says that it speaks for the majority. What do they base this claim on? The results of the November 1 election that handed them a healthy 64 to 56 majority in the Knesset. The only problem is that this relatively sizeable parliamentary majority – at least in Israeli terms – represents only a slim margin of victory, some 30,000 people, in the popular vote.
SO WHAT is the consensus that Herzog needs to represent? And by doggedly working toward a way to find a compromise, does he risk losing the support of the public?
What he does risk losing is some of the support from former colleagues on the center-left, people like Yachimovich and Barak. Interestingly, Herzog was instrumental in Barak’s election as prime minister in 1999.
Yachimovich made clear in her op-ed that there is no room for compromise on this issue of judicial reform, and Barak won’t stop backing anti-Netanyahu protests until the prime minister is forever turned out of office. Netanyahu could announce tomorrow that he was burying the reform, yet in a few weeks time Barak and Ya’alon would show up as the main speakers at an anti-Netanyahu rally over another issue.
Herzog will also probably lose the support of Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, for whom the protest and overall sense of governmental breakdown benefits politically. The worse things get on the street, the better they get for him politically. Cynical, but true – and not only for him, but generally for all opposition leaders everywhere who want to lead their countries.
So, yes, among politicians, Herzog will lose support.
But what about the people? Do most Israelis want to see this crisis go on forever?
A recent poll taken by the Israel Democracy Institute found that while more than 60% of the Israeli public is opposed to certain critical elements of the judicial reform, even a more significant majority – 72% – are in favor of a dialogue about the legislative proposals and an attempt to reach a compromise.
While some in the opposition and among the leaders of the protest movement and “National Disruption Day” will see Herzog’s efforts as a betrayal, the majority of the country – based on polling data – is likely pleased someone is trying to find a way out of this current mess.