Feb 12, 2023 - World

Israeli president: "Powder keg about to explode" over judicial overhaul plan

Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog speaks during the swearing in ceremony of the new Israeli governmentt at the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2022

Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Israeli government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on Nov. 15, 2022. Photo: Abir Sultan/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli President Isaac Herzog in a speech to the nation on Sunday laid out a proposal for solving the constitutional crisis around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to weaken the Supreme Court and called on the government to suspend the legislation process and enter talks on judicial reforms that will garner broad consensus.

Why it matters: Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan has prompted mass protests in Israel and concerns from the Biden administration about what it could mean for the U.S. ally's democracy.

  • The first vote in the Knesset legislative committee on the first part of the judicial plan is expected on Monday. After the voting starts, it will be much harder to stop the legislative process.
  • A national strike has also been called for Monday by the organizers of the protests against the judicial plan. The strike includes a protest in front of the Israeli parliament.

Catch up quick: Netanyahu's government — the most right-wing in the country's history — presented its judicial overhaul plan just weeks after taking office.

  • The plan includes passing a law that would allow the governing coalition to override Supreme Court rulings by a simple majority of 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset. That would significantly limit the Supreme Court’s ability to review laws and strike them down.
  • It also seeks to end the Supreme Court's ability to revoke administrative decisions by the government on the grounds of "reasonability," significantly decreasing judicial oversight. And it envisions giving the government and the coalition in parliament absolute control over appointing judges.
  • The plan has deepened political divisions inside Israel and garnered rare statements from U.S. officials, who typically avoid weighing in on Israeli domestic issues. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his trip to the region this month urged Netanyahu to build a broad consensus around his plan.

What they're saying: Herzog on Sunday warned that the confrontation in Israeli society around Netanyahu’s plan could lead to violence.

  • "We are not in a political debate anymore. We are on the brink of a social and constitutional collapse. The powder keg is about to explode," Herzog said.
  • The Israeli president said the calls for judicial reform are justified but stressed the government’s current plan “raises deep concerns for potential negative implications on Israel’s democratic foundations."
  • He said that intelligence reports he has recently read showed how Israel’s enemies are watching the developments with delight. “Is there a bigger warning sign than this?" Herzog asked.

Herzog presented five principles as a basis for immediate negotiations among the government, the opposition and the president of the Supreme Court. The principles include:

  • Upgrading the constitutional status of basic laws and the way they are passed and excluding them from judicial oversight.
  • Reaching a broad consensus through negotiations on the majority needed for the Supreme Court to strike down laws and the majority needed for the Knesset to override rulings of the high court.
  • Significantly increasing the number of judges so that the citizens get better service from the judicial system.
  • Changing the system of appointing judges in a way that will weaken the power the Supreme Court judges have today but won’t give the government a majority to appoint judges.
  • Reaching a consensus through negotiations on how to define the use of the “reasonability cause” by the Supreme Court, which allows it to strike down administrative decisions of the executive branch.

Herzog urged the minister of justice, the chairman of the Knesset legislative committee and the president of the Supreme Court to enter immediate negotiations on the basis of his principles and under his auspices.

  • Herzog also called on the coalition to suspend the legislative process, not hold votes on the judicial plan on Monday and Wednesday as planned and start negotiating instead.

Shortly after Herzog's speech, Justice Minister Yariv Levin rejected Herzog's calls and said he wouldn't suspend the votes planned for Monday. Levin added that while Herzog's proposal has positive elements, there is no justification for linking the legislative process to the dialogue on the judicial plan.

  • Many in the Israeli opposition, including former Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, accepted Herzog's proposal.

The big picture: President Biden weighed in on Netanyahu’s judicial plan for the first time in a short statement he gave to the New York Times published earlier Sunday.

  • It is very unusual for Biden or any U.S. president to intervene in the domestic legislation of a close ally, but his comments showed the concerns his administration has over Netanyahu’s plan.
  • ”The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained," Biden said.
  • Tom Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, praised Herzog's speech on Sunday on Twitter.

Go deeper: Blinken's civics lesson for Netanyahu

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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