Israel at critical crossroad after President Herzog addresses nation. Which way will it go?
By David E. Kaplan
“What are you doing this Saturday night?”
For many Israelis today the answer is simple and obvious.
It’s a long time since so many thousands upon thousands of Israelis collectively know in advance how they are going to spend their Saturday nights. Whether in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheba, Haifa or my home city of Kfar Saba, it will not be inside visiting friends or at restaurants or pubs but outside to city crossroads screaming “de-mo-cra-tia” (democracy) and “busha” (shame), while holding aloft Israeli flags. These ‘crossroads’ are a metaphor of where the country is today – at a crossroad. Anxious about the future character of their country as it threatens to mutate into something dreaded, people of all ages in chilly weather will stand for hours on the soles of their feet for the soul of their country.
I am proud to be one of them!
“What is the point of protesting?”
“What do you hope to achieve?”
“They are just going to ignore and proceed anyway. Why bother?”
Well, for one thing, a lot of important folk have joined in “bothering”.
These include judges and jurists, Israeli generals and former security chiefs, bankers and titans in hi-tech, leaders of Israel’s opposition parties joined by world leaders like the presidents of the US and France. All have one thing in common – all have Israel’s interests at heart. They can’t all be “misguided” as I have been called.
On the contrary, more and more think the Prime Minister and his government are “misguided” in forcing the country down a dangerous road with a reckless driver behind the wheel. Whether reckless or proverbially carjacked with a gun to the head from coalition partners, the Prime Minister is seemingly disregarding all the warning signs, reminiscent of one Marie-Antoinette, blinded to the reality outside the palace walls and arrogantly saying:
“Let them eat cake”
We know how that story ended!
And then, a NEWS FLASH – the State President from his residence in Jerusalem is going to address the nation.
When? We learn only hours away, at 8.00 that evening in what his office called “a special address to the nation…in fateful days.”
“Fateful days” in Israel is war talk but we are not at war. Or maybe we are – at war with ourselves.
We feel we are in uncharted terrain. The situation must be beyond serious if the President, knowing he did not enjoy the approval of the Prime Minister or any in the coalition to so proceed, was still determined to do so. The state of the nation, Herzog felt, demanded he intervene. This was largely unprecedented in Israeli history for a president to address the nation warning the people not against a foreign danger but a danger from within and from the highest echelons of power – the Prime Minister and his coalition government!
People across Israel sat glued to their TV’s when President Herzog walked solemnly up to the podium.
I reflected as he began to speak that this was a far cry when on the 17 March 1949, Chaim Weizmann was sworn in as Israel’s first president. Recognising that his coattails were somewhat clipped by Ben Gurion and that his position was largely ceremonial, he was heard to cynically quip:
“The only place they will allow me to poke my nose into is my handkerchief.”
Breaking the protocol of the presidency, Isaac Herzog was undaunted to ‘poke his nose’ into current Israel’s affairs of state, On the 12 February 2023, Israel’s State Presidency was as far removed as ‘ceremonial’ as its ever been in its history of 74 years.
In his primetime address to the nation, the President made a passionate appeal to the government less to halt – noting that “change” and “reform” were legitimate pursuits – but more to suspend its hurried legislative process to pave the way for negotiations with the opposition on a broad compromise.
With deepening rifts between right and left, secular and devout, the President cautioned:
“I feel, we all feel, that we are a moment before a confrontation, even a violent confrontation…….The powder keg is about to explode, and brothers are about to raise their hands against brothers.”
The President in his heartfelt address brought the full weight of his office in his appeal to a government hellbent on bulldozing its judicial overhaul and imposing it on a highly polarized Israeli society. In urging a pause to the judicial shakeup, the President proposed a 5-point plan.
The immediate reaction from the government were not encouraging. Justice Minister Yariv Levin – who is the Prime Minister’s point man to driving this judicial overhaul – sounded more like the proverbial Marie-Antoinette when he shrugged off the President’s appeal on Channel 13, saying the legislation would not be halted:
“even for a minute.”
Herzog reiterated his calls to calm public discourse around his proposal.
Where is this leading?
Well, if the government was ignoring its State President, not so the former prime minister, Yair Lapid, who called for a ‘Presidential Committee’ on the government’s proposed judicial “reforms” that should begin with a 60-day freeze on all legislation connected with it. Addressing the Knesset, Lapid said:
“Sixty days is the blink of an eye in the life of a democracy,” and called for a “proper process” for how such a committee would work. “We waited 74 years. Nothing will happen if it takes another few weeks, during which we will save the nation of Israel from a terrible crisis.”
Also positively responding to the President’s call to save the nation from “a terrible crisis” were 400 ex-senior security officials, including former heads of the police, Shin Bet and Mossad, who signed a letter urging President Isaac Herzog not to agree to any laws that contradict Israel’s core democratic values as part of his efforts to mediate a compromise. The letter reiterated the President’s concern that the proposed legislative steps would “constitute a judicial revolution that will cause damage for generations to come.”
Signatories to the letter of appeal include former Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman; former Mossad directors Tamir Pardo and Danny Yatom; ex-police commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki and former national security adviser Uzi Arad.
Is this government even ready to listen?
If not, they will probably also ignore the full page personal appeal appearing in Israeli newspapers addressed to the President Isaac Herzog by seven Jewish Nobel Laureates – six of whom are Israeli. They are Prof. Aaron Ciechanover(2004 Chemistry), Prof. Avram Hershko (2004 Chemistry), Prof. Daniel Kahnerman (2002 Economics), Prof. Roger Kornberg (2006 Chemistry), Prof Michael Levitt (2013 Chemistry), Prof. Aryeh Warshel (2013 Chemistry) and Prof. Ada Yonath (2009 Chemistry). Their appeal is based on the negative impact Netanyahu’s government’s proposed legal “reform” will have on scientific research and higher education. They write:
“We call on the President of the State of Israel to take a clear stance against the proposed changes, on the Prime Minister to return to the positions he himself advocated until recently, and on the members of the Knesset to hear our voice and halt the proposed changes to the legal system.”
How Israel – “The Startup-Nation” – prides itself on being such a small country with so many Nobel laureates but when the time arises that these same prized laureates warn the country, this government ignores them because, they believe they “know better.”
These are troubling times if every Saturday night in the calendar is blocked off to go protest. After 7 consecutive weekends of protest, at the latest demonstration in Kfar Saba – addressed by the former Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister of Defense Benny Gantz – it was announced that almost a quarter million Israelis were joining in the demonstrations at over 60 sites across Israel. This includes the almost 135,000 people in Tel Aviv who marched from Dizengoff Center to Kaplan Street.
Where to next?
The setting reminds me of two great medieval armies standing ready on a European battlefield, only a brief gallop apart.
To avoid an impeding societal clash, we hope the wise appeal of the President will prevail in time.
Is Israel unraveling? There are enough people who love it to ensure it doesn’t. In the meantime, the protesters will continue and I will be among them as a proud Zionist.
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