'Compromise' is being treated like a dirty word - analysis

INSIDE POLITICS: With the coalition’s refusal to accept Herzog’s proposal, the prospects of a solution are increasingly looking dimmer

 A LONE protester sits on the ground as mounted police officers patrol the street in Tel Aviv yesterday, the day after the coalition rejected President Isaac Herzog’s plan to resolve the crisis over the government’s judicial overhaul plans. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A LONE protester sits on the ground as mounted police officers patrol the street in Tel Aviv yesterday, the day after the coalition rejected President Isaac Herzog’s plan to resolve the crisis over the government’s judicial overhaul plans.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

There must have been countless hours invested in developing the “Peoples’ Outline” that President Isaac Herzog presented to the country and its political leadership. But it took less than five minutes for the coalition to abruptly slam the door on his face.

Shortly after the president concluded his televised speech on Wednesday, in which he presented his outline for an alternative judicial overhaul, cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs politely rejected it on Twitter, dubbing it as a “unilateral framework, to which no one in the coalition agreed.”

Fuchs, one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants, had been assigned to the President’s Residence in the past week or so, to seek and negotiate a national compromise and end the escalating political and constitutional crisis. His clear and swift reaction to the presidential address set the tone for a unanimous coalition rebuttal, which clarified that if anyone was naively giving peace a chance, the optimism was short-lived.

It was Herzog’s third momentous speech to the nation within a month, during which he has been tirelessly seeking a golden mean, in his own words, to prevent the country from falling into an abyss. Herzog, who was elected to his post by an unprecedented majority of 87 members of Knesset, is one of the last figures in Israeli society with outreach to both sides of the political, social and tribal polarization and schism. And as the government dashed forward with the aggressive judicial overhaul and the streets filled with widening protests, he aspired to use his stature and status to avoid a national disaster.

“We are a marching into the chasm, a moment before collision,” Herzog warned with trembling hands in his first historic address in mid-February. On the eve of the reform’s first reading, he called on the coalition to halt the legislation and enter a national dialogue, under his auspices, for broad consensual changes, and presented a five-point plan constitutional framework as the basis for negotiations.

 THIS CRISIS has produced at least one hero. Once again, our president, Isaac Herzog, stood tall, says the writer (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) THIS CRISIS has produced at least one hero. Once again, our president, Isaac Herzog, stood tall, says the writer (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Rejecting compromise

The coalition, however, impolitely ignored the appeal: the morning after the presidential plea, it proceeded with the reform legislation exactly as planned.

The first presidential outline descended into a political blame game. While the leaders of the opposition and protests stuck to the demand to put a freeze on the legislation process, the architects of the reform, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset judiciary committee chairman Simcha Rothman, reiterated their objection to any stop or delay, and essentially closed the door on any meaningful political negotiation.

Nevertheless, the president didn’t give up the ship, and continued to relentlessly push for a compromise, in multiple circles and channels, in public and behind the scenes.

Herzog summoned the best of Israeli legal and academic minds to his residence, connecting staunch liberal leftist think tanks with the scholars of the Kohelet Forum, the controversial right-wing advocacy group that inspired and promoted the sweeping overhaul to begin with. Under his auspices, they conducted a deep and thorough constitutional dialogue, and produced several working papers at his request.

Last week, in the president’s second televised address, he announced he had reached agreements on most issues, and that “the gaps have been greatly reduced.” Once again, he voiced his alarm from a “point of no return” and defined the moment as “make-or-break.” He harshened his angry tone toward the government, demanding it abandon the “oppressive” reform for an alternative consensual formula.

This time, Netanyahu’s public reaction was supposedly more polite: visiting a synagogue in Rome, Netanyahu publicly welcomed the president’s initiative to find agreement and common ground, and he sent his cabinet secretary to Herzog to start and discuss the details. But on Sunday morning, the coalition did what it did, again: Rothman convened his committee and continued to work on the reform legislation, exactly as planned.

Moreover, the coalition undermined the presidential constitutional workshop in advance. Last week, an alternative revision of the legal reform emerged, drafted by professors Yuval Elbashan and former justice minister Daniel Friedmann, suspiciously close to the original Levin-Rothman plan and probably introduced at their behest. Sure enough, the justice minister and his parliamentary comrade embraced the moderate version of their reform as a basis for discussion, as it preserved their core principles with only cosmetic changes: control of the judge selection committee, limiting judicial overview, and politicizing the role of government legal advisers. The coalition might eventually adapt some of its proposals, but it will be a compromise with only one side: The opposition and the protesters didn’t buy into it, slamming it as “a compromise in disguise.”

Yet the president didn’t slacken his efforts. He prepared for his third constitutional plea by bolstering himself with wide PR circles of pressure and support from the municipal leadership, business sector and the Histadrut labor federation. And Netanyahu, after 10 weeks of widening protests and growing international scrutiny, appeared to display first signs of real intent for a compromise that will put the national turmoil to rest. He sent his closest confidant, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, to the President’s Residence, to review and negotiate over Herzog’s formula, and according to well-informed sources was willing to make significant concessions. Whether Netanyahu sincerely meant to step down from the reform or only to fake it for the sake of the blame game is an open question, but in any case he couldn’t deliver.

Ahead of Herzog’s speech on Wednesday, Netanyahu postponed his planned flight to Berlin, and convened his allies to contemplate the consensus proposal, displaying a sense of urgency. However, Netanyahu’s partners didn’t follow suit.

Levin refused to budge on the core element of the reform, from his perspective – the coalition’s control of the judicial selection process, paving the path for Rothman to object to the presidential outline, as well.

Then, Shas leader Arye Deri and the haredi parties also hardened their positions. Even though Herzog intentionally designed his framework to include assurances for their concerns, with a military draft exemption and a path for Deri to return to the government, they echoed Levin’s negative reservations.

Herzog, in response, toughened his stance as well. Two hours later, he presented the “People’s Outline” to the nation, much more liberal than the one he discussed with the coalition messengers all day. After three dramatic unanswered appeals to the government, he decided to take a clear stand, by adopting a strong liberal framework for the relationships between the three branches of government, enshrining both the Jewish and Democratic nature of the state. The prime minister politely brushed off the proposal, just before his delayed departure to Germany, followed by a joint statement by the coalition faction leaders, dubbing Herzog’s offer as “one-sided, biased and unacceptable.”

The criticism of the president quickly escalated to a harsh political attack by senior coalition members, accusing him of surrender to the Left and contempt for the 64-seat right-wing victory in the elections. Within hours, the presidential consensus proposal fell apart, and weeks of mediation went down the drain.

For weeks, Herzog has been trying to preserve his go-between status and prevent the nation from dividing into two states. However, his naive and optimistic attempt to generate a broad consensual formula for judicial and democratic changes constantly ignored the elephant in the room: Israel did not reach this pivotal constitutional moment out of nowhere, but was led to it by a power-savvy government headed by a prime minister indicted in three criminal cases.

Before Netanyahu became a criminal suspect, he was one of the strongest defenders of the Supreme Court, hailing its independence as a bedrock of Israeli democracy. For years, he took pride in fighting Levin’s proposals to weaken the judicial system. Thus, his personal legal embroilment caused him to change his ways and enlisted him to form a far-right bloc coalition with the most extremist elements, who share a mutual resentment of the court, each for their own ideological, sectorial or personal reasons.

After handing the government three olive branches, Herzog understood that even if Netanyahu’s quest for compromise was true and sincere, Levin and company would topple any significant concessions. They left him almost no choice but to pick sides.

SO WHAT’S next? More of the same, and probably worse. The coalition plans to conclude the first stage of the reform legislation by the end of the Knesset session early next month, exactly as planned, but is still seeking a way to calm the widening protests and ease the grave economic and diplomatic concerns they are generating. Senior coalition sources say that Levin and Rothman intend to make unilateral concessions, and soften or postpone the most controversial elements, and once again blame the opposition and the leaders of the protests. However, the coalition’s cosmetic moderations are not likely to generate the required broader consensus it needs to immunize the reform against Supreme Court scrutiny and avoid an unprecedented constitutional confrontation.

Until then, despite the harsh words and attacks, Herzog will continue to play the peacemaker. On Thursday, he said he accepted all criticism “with love and great respect,” and insisted his plan is “not the end of the discussion, only the beginning.”

He believes that after the dust settles, the government might recalculate and agree to meet him in the middle. But with no tangible results in sight, and the coalition intent on speeding forward with its plan, his eternal optimism might be misplaced.