Israeli president warns of risk of civil war as Netanyahu rejects judicial compromise

The Guardian  /  March 15, 2023

Herzog proposes alternative to far-right coalition’s judiciary changes but prime minister says it just perpetuates the current situation.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has swiftly rejected a proposed compromise from president Isaac Herzog, aimed at resolving a standoff over the planned judicial overhaul by Netanyahu’s far-right coalition that has triggered mass protests in recent weeks.

Herzog revealed the proposal during a televised evening address, warning: “Anyone who thinks that a real civil war, of human life, is a line that we will not reach has no idea.” He added: “The abyss is within touching distance.”

But Netanyahu quickly turned it down. “Unfortunately, the things the president presented were not agreed to by the coalition representatives,” Netanyahu said at Israel’s main international airport before departing for Germany. “And central elements of the proposal he offered just perpetuate the current situation and don’t bring the necessary balance between the branches. That is the unfortunate truth.”

The drive by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government to enact sweeping changes to Israel’s courts has sparked domestic uproar and alarm among the country’s western allies. If the initial proposal passed, it would mean greater government control in selecting judges and limits to the power of the supreme court to strike down legislation.

A main point of contention in the planned overhaul is an amendment to the way in which judges are selected. The president’s plan would see the selection committee include three ministers, the president of the high court, two judges and two civil servants who will be agreed upon by both the president of the supreme court and the justice minister.

The justice minister, Yariv Levin, has said the coalition’s proposed measures would change the way judges are appointed by giving the Knesset more oversight and the government more power on the committee which selects them.

The president warned on Wednesday that Israel was at a turning point and stressed he had been involved in mediation efforts and speaking with “thousands of people” for weeks.

Herzog said Israel was “in the depths of a real crisis” but also “in front of a huge opportunity” and “at a fork in the road”.

“Most Israelis want a plan that will bring both justice and peace,” he said.

The government’s secretary, Yossi Fuchs, confirmed on Twitter that the coalition did not support the president’s plan. “The president’s plan is one-sided of the president and has not been agreed upon by any member of the coalition,” he said.

The Israeli president, whose role is largely ceremonial, has been conducting talks in recent weeks in an attempt to broker a compromise between members of the coalition and those who oppose the judicial changes, but has not confirmed that he has support for the plan from legislators.

Netanyahu wields a parliamentary majority along with his religious-nationalist coalition allies.

The Israeli premier said he was shortening a scheduled trip to Berlin. A preliminary itinerary circulated last week said he would return on Friday. But the new statement said he would return on Thursday.

Netanyahu also delayed his flight to Berlin as he was in talks with coalition members over possible amendments to the planned judicial changes, several Hebrew media outlets reported.

Hundreds of protesters arrived at the airport in an attempt to disrupt the prime minister’s departure to Berlin on Wednesday.

The Israeli finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, announced he was shortening a planned trip to Panama, instead deciding to return to Israel on Wednesday evening in order to “guide a process of legislation and dialogue” over the planned judicial changes, a statement from his office said.

With Reuters and Associated Press