Netanyahu rejects judicial compromise, deepening crisis

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A man holds a sign , don't come back, and an Israeli flag during protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, ahead of Netanyahu's visit to Germany in Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Hundreds of Israeli writers, artists and intellectuals on Tuesday called on Germany and Britain to cancel upcoming visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying his plan to overhaul Israel's judicial system has put the country on a destructive course. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday swiftly rejected a compromise proposal aimed at resolving a standoff over his plans to overhaul the country's legal system, deepening the crisis over a program that has roiled the country and drawn international criticism.

The country's figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, presented the compromise in a nationally televised address.

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Herzog, whose ceremonial role is meant to serve as a national unifier and moral compass, unveiled the proposal after more than two months of mass protests against Netanyahu’s plan. He said he had been consulting with a broad cross section of the country 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. “The abyss,” he warned, “is within touching distance.”

But Netanyahu quickly turned it down. “Unfortunately, the things the president presented were not agreed to by the coalition representatives,” Netanyahu said at Israel's main international airport before departing to Germany. “And central elements of the proposal he offered just perpetuate the current situation and don't bring the necessary balance between the branches. That is the unfortunate truth.”

Netanyahu's plan would allow parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions and give his parliamentary coalition the final say over all judicial appointments.

Netanyahu’s allies say the plan is needed to curb what they claim are excessive powers of unelected judges. Their opponents say it would destroy the country’s system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his ruling coalition. They also say Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.

Herzog's proposal offered incentives to both sides. 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.”

Merav Michaeli, leader of the opposition Labor party, welcomed the proposal and said Netanyahu's rejection shows he “is not for legal reform but for judicial overthrow.”

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 U.S., 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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