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Israeli president unveils legal overhaul compromise

President Isaac Herzog’s proposal would abolish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to give parliament the power to strike down Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority

Protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system
A man holds a sign during protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system on March 15, 2023.Tsafrir Abayov (AP)

Israel’s president on Wednesday unveiled a plan aimed at resolving a standoff over the future of the country’s legal system. But it remained unclear whether the offer would break the deadlock roiling the country and drawing international criticism.

President Isaac Herzog said his proposal reflects a broad cross section of Israel and suggested that Israel’s survival depends on reaching a compromise. “Anyone who thinks that a real civil war, of human life, is a line that we will not reach has no idea,” Herzog said during a televised evening address. “The abyss,” he warned, “is within touching distance.”

There was no immediate reaction from either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his opposition.

Herzog, whose mostly ceremonial role is to serve as a national unifier and moral compass, unveiled the proposal after more than two months of mass protests against Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the legal system.

Netanyahu’s plan would give his parliamentary coalition the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions and authority over all judicial appointments.

Netanyahu’s allies say the plan is needed to curb what they say are excessive powers of unelected judges. But their opponents say it would destroy the country’s system of checks and balances. They also say Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.

Under Herzog’s proposal, parliament would not be able to overturn Supreme Court rulings. But judges would not be allowed to overturn major legislation known as “Basic Laws,” which serve as a sort of constitution. Basic Laws, however, would require a parliamentary supermajority, instead of a simple majority, to pass.

Judicial appointments would be made by a committee comprised of coalition and opposition lawmakers, judges and public representatives. Appointments would require a broad consensus, and no single party would wield a veto.

“This is not the president’s draft. It is the draft of the nation,” Herzog said. “There is no side that wins, no side that loses.”

Netanyahu delayed his departure for an official visit to Germany as Herzog prepared to unveil the plan.

While Netanyahu did not immediately comment, his Cabinet secretary, Yossi Fuchs, put out a statement on Twitter stressing that the proposal was the president’s “and not an outline agreed upon in any way by any party in the coalition.”

Netanyahu’s proposal has sparked weeks of mass protests by tens of thousands of Israelis, drawn criticism from business leaders, economists and legal experts. Military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty if it passes. Even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the US, have urged caution.

Earlier on Wednesday, a senior delegation of Jewish-American leaders paid a flash visit to Israel to urge leaders to find a compromise. The arrival of some 30 leaders from the Jewish Federations of North America marked a rare foray by the American Jewish community into domestic Israeli affairs and reflected concerns that the turmoil inside Israel could spill over to Jewish communities overseas.

Eric Fingerhut, the president and chief executive of the Jewish Federations, said the 24-hour visit, coming at short notice, illustrated the “grave concern and worry” the Israeli debate has raised among American Jews.

The Federations said the visit was the first time “in recent history” that it has sent such a delegation to discuss Israeli policy with Israeli leaders.

Fingerhut said his group was unable to meet with Netanyahu, but held talks with senior members of Netanyahu’s coalition, opposition leaders and Herzog. He said his group’s message to all sides was to find a compromise and calm the deeply polarized atmosphere.

American Jews tend to hold liberal political positions and identify with liberal streams of Judaism that have struggled for recognition in Israel. An array of Jewish groups have raised concerns that minority rights and religious pluralism could be weakened by the overhaul.

The Jewish Federations of North America represent over 400 Jewish communities across the U.S. and Canada. It raises and distributes more than $2 billion a year to support Jewish communities and vulnerable populations domestically, in Israel and worldwide, making it the largest Jewish philanthropic organization in North America.

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