Thursday, 13 Jun 2024

After Months of Turmoil, Israel’s President Sees Hope for Judicial Compromise

Since Israel’s government announced plans in January to overhaul the judiciary, the country has been gripped by growing turmoil in the streets, disquiet in the military — and warnings from its president, Isaac Herzog, of societal collapse and even civil war.

But now Mr. Herzog, who is overseeing negotiations to find a compromise, has a more hopeful message — two weeks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended the overhaul to allow for a month of negotiations with the opposition.

In his first full interview on the subject with journalists, Mr. Herzog said this week that his negotiations were gaining momentum and that consensus was possible. He even hopes for a compromise that could resolve not only the debate over the judiciary but also other constitutional ambiguities that have gone unsolved since 1948, when Israel’s founders established the state without writing a formal constitution.

“It’s a potential for a constitutional moment,” Mr. Herzog said. “A moment where we can direct Israel into a stronger and more resilient structure.”

“Something,” he added, “which we didn’t do since our founding 75 years ago.”

As a figurehead president, Mr. Herzog, 62, has no formal authority to bring the sides together.

But he has used his long experience and public standing to assume the position of broker, taking on a larger leadership role than his largely ceremonial position usually allows for.

In the interview, Mr. Herzog warned Israel’s enemies against interpreting the country’s internal divisions as a sign of military weakness — rowing back previous comments on the threat of civil war.

Armed groups in southern Lebanon fired rockets at Israel last week, after Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, a powerful Iran-backed militia based in southern Lebanon, predicted that Israel would soon collapse. But Mr. Herzog warned Iran’s proxies not to try similar attacks on Friday, when Iran plans a national protest against Israel’s existence.

“Don’t fool yourselves,” Mr. Herzog said. “We have always been united when it comes to our defense and security. Israel is extremely strong and is capable of taking action if needed.”

Mr. Herzog’s projection of strength and unity was an unlikely dose of optimism after a fractious start to the year that shook many Israelis, including the president himself.

In the first week of 2023, days after taking office, Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right government announced plans to limit the Supreme Court’s ability to countermand laws passed by Parliament, give the legislature greater power to overrule the court and allow the government more control over who gets to be a Supreme Court justice.

Critics fear that Mr. Netanyahu wants to reduce the judiciary’s influence to avoid punishment in his corruption trial, a claim he has repeatedly rejected. Mr. Herzog — who has the power to pardon Mr. Netanyahu — denied in the interview that he was holding separate talks with the prime minister about pardoning him.

The impasse has led to one of the longest and largest protest waves in Israeli history.

In late March, after three months of mass demonstrations and amid a general strike that stopped planes leaving the country’s main airport, Mr. Netanyahu pulled back, suspending the overhaul until the next session of Parliament, which starts in late April.

That has provided breathing space for Mr. Netanyahu to begin negotiations with the opposition — chaired and hosted by Mr. Herzog.

For the first time since the start of the crisis, high-level delegations from both sides have met several times at Mr. Herzog’s official residence in Jerusalem in an attempt to thrash out a compromise.

“I’m carrying a certain historic burden on my shoulders,” Mr. Herzog said. “I’m perhaps the only element in Israeli public life that all parties can feel free to come and speak to and confide with,” he said.

Members of the delegations declined to discuss the negotiations on the record, but both sides have publicly stated their willingness to reach a consensus.

The mediation effort could still fail. The government advanced far enough with part of the overhaul that it could enact it within a single afternoon once Parliament returns from recess at the end of April. And Mr. Netanyahu must find a way of placating hard-line members of his coalition who reject any change to the overhaul’s current format.

The opposition negotiators also have a base to satisfy: a vast protest movement, some of which wants the overhaul scrapped entirely. The protest leaders are not at the negotiation table.

Shikma Bressler, one of those leaders, said she feared that the opposition might make too many concessions because — with the government able to move forward so quickly — it was negotiating “with a gun held to our temple.”

Mr. Herzog, a lawyer turned politician, comes from a family of public servants. His grandfather, Yitzhak, was a chief rabbi of Israel. His father, Chaim, was president for a decade, starting in 1983. And his brother Michael is the current Israeli ambassador to Washington.

Mr. Herzog headed several ministries before becoming leader of the opposition Labor Party for four years, starting in 2013.

But it is since becoming head of state in 2021 — elected by a large majority of lawmakers — that he has come into his own.

On the world stage, Mr. Herzog has become involved in Israeli diplomacy, both in public and behind the scenes.

A year ago, he helped revive ties with Turkey, becoming the first senior Israeli official to visit the country in years. And last fall, he helped resolve a disagreement with Germany over compensation for families of Israeli athletes killed at the Olympic Games in 1972.

But since Mr. Netanyahu’s government entered office in late December, Mr. Herzog has focused on Israel itself.

Even before the government formally introduced its proposal in early January, the president quietly tasked an experienced former civil servant, Oved Yehezkel, with coaxing both sides away from positions on the issue that would be unacceptable to either side.

Then, in February, Mr. Herzog began to host indirect negotiations in his formal residence — allowing critics of the overhaul to meet there with government officials and their supporters.

That effort failed. Mr. Herzog’s own compromise proposal — published in March — was also immediately rejected by the government.

But now both sides are back at the negotiating table, at meetings chaired by the president himself, and will meet again next week for marathon talks.

“Herzog is a wizard at creating trust — I have never met a person who does not love and does not trust him,” Naftali Bennett, a right-wing former prime minister whose tenure overlapped with Mr. Herzog’s first year in the presidency, said in a phone interview.

“I can’t think of a more suitable person than him, at such a dramatic moment, to lead the negotiations,” said Mr. Bennett, who is no longer in politics and is not involved in the negotiations.

Though a patchwork of Israeli laws have taken on a quasi-constitutional status, Israel has never had a single written constitution.

That ambiguity has led to recurrent friction over the balance of power between the different parts of government, religious and secular visions of the state, the state’s responsibilities to ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the contribution that ultra-Orthodox Jews should make to state institutions like the military.

Mr. Herzog said that many of those issues might now be addressed, but declined to give full details to avoid jeopardizing the talks.

He is optimistic, though. The government has signaled it could wait until late summer for a compromise, he said.

“There’s a lot of good will in the room since we started the negotiations two weeks ago,” Mr. Herzog said.

“I’m not naïve,” he said. But, “I still give it a chance.”

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