Israel’s Herzog seeks to avert crisis over judicial shakeup plan

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Israel’s president Isaac Herzog warned on Sunday that the country faced a constitutional crisis over a contested plan to rein in the judiciary and said he was mediating between parties.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his sixth term, wants to put controls on the Supreme Court, which members of his religious-nationalist coalition accuse of overreach and elitism.

Proposed legislation would limit High Court rulings against government moves or Knesset parliament laws, while increasing politicians’ sway over the selection of judges.

Critics of the Supreme Court, particularly on the right, accuse judges of encroaching increasingly into the political sphere and overstepping their authority to pursue a left wing agenda.

Opponents, who held nationwide protests on Saturday, say it would cripple judicial independence, foster corruption, set back minority rights and deprive Israel’s courts of credibility that helps fend off war-crimes charges abroad.

“We are in the grips of a profound disagreement that is tearing our nation apart. This conflict worries me deeply, as it worries many across Israel and the (Jewish) Diaspora,” President Isaac Herzog said in a statement.

Herzog, whose post lacks executive powers and is designed to unify an often fractious Israeli society, said he was working non-stop with the relevant parties to promote dialog.

“I am now focused on ... two critical roles that I believe I bear as president at this hour: averting a historic constitutional crisis and stopping the continued rift within our nation.”

Netanyahu defends plan

In televised remarks at his weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu made no mention of Herzog’s overture.

Judicial reforms, he said, had been sought by previous governments of various political stripes “and no one then thought about talking about an end to democracy.”

Promising a “delving discussion” in a parliamentary review committee where the opposition has representation, Netanyahu said: “We will complete the reform legislation that will fix what needs fixing, will fully protect individual rights and will restore the public’s trust in the justice system.”

A survey published by the Israel Democracy Institute on Sunday noted a decline in public trust in the Supreme Court.

The study revealed that 80 percent of left-wing Israelis, 62 percent of centrists, and only 29 percent of right-wingers trust the court.

It also found that most Israelis, (55.6 percent), support the court having the ability to strike down laws passed by the Knesset parliament if they contradict principles of democracy.

Yair Lapid, centrist head of the opposition contested Netanyahu’s claim that the judicial reforms reflect the views of the general electorate but said he was open to a measure of reform that would allow change only with a parliamentary super majority.

Whereas Netanyahu, whose coalition controls 64 seats, wants to empower the 120-seat Knesset to override some Supreme Court rulings with a 61-vote majority, Lapid suggested raising that to 70 - including 10 opposition lawmakers.

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