A compromise proposal on controversial legislative changes presented by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has been rejected by the governing coalition, putting a swift end to hopes that the country’s political crisis can be immediately resolved.
In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday of last week, Herzog revealed what he called “the people’s directive” aimed at ending the 10-week-old standoff between Israel’s new hardline government and the large protest movement opposed to the plans, which would give politicians much greater control of the judiciary.
The proposals have been criticized as undermining democratic norms and the rule of law, sparking mass protests that have united what is usually a highly polarized society, including strong opposition from military reservists and the normally apolitical tech sector.
“The last few weeks have been tearing us apart,” the president said. “Israel is in the throes of a profound crisis. Anyone who thinks that a real civil war, of human life, is a line that we will not reach has no idea. The abyss is within touching distance.”
Herzog responded to the government’s criticism in a media conference on Thursday morning, describing his proposals as a basis for work, change and precision. “This isn’t the end of the discussion, only its beginning,” he said.
The president’s role is largely ceremonial but he has repeatedly appealed to the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to freeze the expedited passage of the legislative changes through the Knesset in order to open a dialogue with opposition parties.
Those efforts have come to naught, however, as did Wednesday’s second attempt at a compromise plan. Netanyahu, seemingly under pressure from the more radical elements of the government, immediately turned it down.
“Unfortunately, the things the president presented were not agreed to by the coalition representatives, and central elements of the proposal he offered just perpetuate the current situation and don’t bring the necessary balance between the branches [of government]. That is the unfortunate truth,” the prime minister said on Wednesday night before leaving for Germany.
Among the proposals advanced by far-right members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition are bills that would allow politicians to appoint all supreme court judges, and an override clause that would mean a simple parliamentary majority could quash the court’s rulings.
The changes would probably help the prime minister avoid prosecution in his corruption trial, in which he denies all charges.
Proponents of the plans believe they are needed to counter a perceived leftwing bias in the court’s decisions, but critics say neutering the court, in a country with no formal constitution or second legislative chamber, amounts to a “rightwing coup”.
Ideas in Herzog’s compromise proposal, which has been weeks in the making, include altering the selection committee for the high court to include three ministers, the court president, two judges and two civil servants, who would be agreed on by the court president and the justice minister.
Despite the fact some of the plan is clearly calibrated to appeal to ultra-Orthodox parties and members of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party who are uncomfortable with their new far-right coalition partners, “the people’s directive” was rejected by the government as not far-reaching enough. Opposition parties, many of which have previously stated they will refuse to negotiate over the proposals, greeted it with cautious enthusiasm.
According to Israeli media, Netanyahu delayed his flight to Berlin on Wednesday as he was in talks with coalition members over possible amendments to the planned judicial changes that would not lead to resignations from the government and the collapse of his bloc’s parliamentary majority.
Rumors are also growing that the prime minister, who has managed to extricate himself from several political stalemates in the past, may be seeking to ditch his extremist partners and form a coalition with a centrist party instead, which would not trigger an election.