President Yitzhak Herzog has urged politicians to “lower the temperature” following growing tension over plans by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.
“I turn to you, elected officials from both ends of the political and public spectrums – show restraint and responsibility,” Mr Herzog said. “We don’t have another country.”
He also asked justice minister Yariv Levin to “soften” his planned changes to the judiciary and offered to host a dialogue about the controversial plans to shift power from the judges and give parliament the right to overrule any supreme court ruling.
Mr Herzog promised he would work to protect the values laid out in Israel’s declaration of independence, which he called “our nation’s compass”.
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“This is a sensitive and volatile time in Israel. I’m aware of the voices heard on both sides, as well as people’s sorrows, concerns and anxieties. It does not go unnoticed. I am not blind to this and am constantly occupied by it,” he said.
The position of president in Israel is largely ceremonial and holders of the office are traditionally reluctant to involve themselves in domestic political controversies.
Mr Herzog’s comments came after Zvika Fogel, a member of the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – from the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party, said opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz should be arrested and thrown in prison for treason because they called for mass protests against the government.
Mr Fogel’s party colleague and Knesset member Almog Cohen warned that if opposition leaders continued “their incitement and desire for bloodshed on the streets – they will be put in handcuffs”.
Mr Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid, responded by saying, “This is how democracy falls apart, in a day. The government’s incitement will end in bloodshed.”
The leader of Otzma Yehudit, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, told police chiefs they must act the same way against left-wing anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv as they do against ultra-Orthodox and Jewish settlers when they block roads during demonstrations.
Mr Ben-Gvir clarified that he does not support a call to arrest opposition leaders for insurrection but agreed with his faction members who said Mr Lapid and Mr Gantz were igniting the streets and must act responsibly.
Mr Netanyahu distanced himself from the comments by far-right members of his coalition but did not condemn them.
“In a democratic country, we do not arrest the heads of the opposition,” he said. “Just as we do not call ministers Nazis and a Jewish government the Third Reich, nor do we encourage civil disobedience among the citizenry.” He was referring to a weekend protest in Tel Aviv in which members of the government were likened to Nazis.
Speaking at the Knesset constitution, law and justice committee on Wednesday, Mr Levin, the justice minister, said: “I am determined to advance the reform that I proposed and no threat will deter me.”
Rowdy opposition parliamentarians tried to prevent the meeting from progressing and the deliberations were suspended for 15 minutes.