Israel is on course for a constitutional crisis after prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejected compromise proposals put forward by president Yitzhak Herzog over plans by the right-wing government to drastically reduce the power of the judiciary.
After weeks of talks with experts, public figures and representatives of the government and opposition, Mr Herzog outlined his plans in a live televised address to the nation on Wednesday night.
“Those who think that a real civil war, with lives lost, is a line we will not cross, have no idea. Precisely now, 75 years into Israel’s existence, the abyss is at our fingertips,” he warned. “The last few weeks have been tearing us apart. They are harming Israel’s economy, security, political ties and especially Israeli cohesion. We are at a crossroads: a historical crisis or a defining constitutional moment.”
The proposal was welcomed by the opposition but was flatly rejected by the coalition within half an hour. In a joint statement the coalition parties described it as “one-sided” and “unacceptable”.
Mr Netanyahu made it clear that the proposals would not serve as a basis for a dialogue to end the schism that has bitterly divided the country and led to protests involving hundreds of thousands who fear that Israeli democracy is in danger.
“Regrettably, the proposals presented by the president had not been agreed to by the coalition and central sections that he presented only perpetuate the existing situation and do not produce the necessary balance between the branches of government,” said Mr Netanyahu.
Coalition parties objected to Mr Herzog’s proposal to change their plan for a built-in majority for the government on the panel that appoints judges and to drop their plan requiring 80 per cent of high court judges to overrule a law passed by the Knesset parliament.
Speaking in Berlin on Thursday, Mr Netanyahu argued that the judicial changes will actually strengthen Israel.
“I am sure that the reform will strengthen our economy, society, and rights. I would like a balanced compromise, but nothing — not even the president’s plan — will offer a balanced way to implement reform. I will return to Israel and find the right way to protect our democratic values,” he said.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz said that Berlin is closely following Israel’s judicial coup “with concern”, urging Mr Netanyahu to give serious consideration to Mr Herzog’s compromise.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid welcomed the compromise. “We need to approach the president’s proposal out of respect for the status, the seriousness with which it was written and the values that stand at its basis,” he said. “Israeli democracy will remain in peril as long as the coalition persists with its imperious legislation.”
The third “National Day of Disruption” was held across Israel on Thursday by opponents of the judicial overhaul who blocked highways at more than 100 locations and the approach to Haifa port from the sea by navy reservists. “This is the moment of truth for Israelis to go out and save democracy,” said the protest organisers, promising to intensify the struggle following the rejection of the president’s compromise. Protesters in Jerusalem painted a red streak on the approach roads to the country’s supreme court. Israelis living in Berlin also demonstrated during Mr Netanyahu’s visit.