US supports Herzog's judicial compromise to prevent 'civil war' in Israel

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has flatly rejected the Israeli President's proposals

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, met Israeli President Isaac Herzog in January. EPA
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The US administration has come out in support of Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s compromise framework over deeply divisive legal reforms being pushed through by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A White House statement released on Thursday said that the US supports Mr Herzog’s “continued efforts to seek a solution consistent with … democratic principles”.

On Wednesday, the Israeli President released his framework, describing it as a “golden path” to prevent “civil war” and “blood in the streets”, as his country goes through one of its most divisive episodes. Opponents of the government's reforms say they could end democracy in Israel.

The reforms are the centrepiece policy of Mr Netanyahu’s new far-right government, which believes the judiciary is too powerful and biased against conservatives.

They advocate measures to allow parliament to strike down legal challenges to laws that politicians propose and more government say in the selection of judges.

In response, mass protests have wracked the country for a 10th consecutive week with an increasing number of figures from Israel’s economic, legal and security establishment stating their opposition to the government plans.

President Herzog's proposed amendments were a bolder challenge to government plans than many had expected.

Mr Netanyahu and members of his government flatly rejected the president’s ideas, which were formed in consultation with a panel of legal experts.

Opposition leaders backed the framework, but described them as “not ideal”.

The US backing of Mr Herzog's plan comes as key Democratic senator Chris Murphy suggested on Thursday that the Biden administration should not rule out conditioning US aid to Israel if the Netanyahu government maintains its “assault” on the two-state solution, a long-standing plan to end conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Mr Murphy told CNN that “if we're going to continue to be in the business of supporting the Israeli government, they have to be in the continuing business of a future Palestinian state ― and that does not seem to be the policy of this government right now”.

He also criticised the Netanyahu government’s judicial proposals, saying they are “fraying the bonds that have connected Israelis together”.

Mr Murphy’s criticism came as Israel launched an operation in Jenin that killed four Palestinians, including two terrorists, amid wider concerns that security in the West Bank is deteriorating.

US pollster Gallup recently reported that 49 per cent of democrats are now more sympathetic towards Palestinians than they are Israelis (38 per cent).

The news of mounting US disquiet comes as Mr Netanyahu concludes a chaotic trip to Germany, which was cut short by the release on Wednesday evening of Mr Herzog’s proposals.

The Prime Minister had stated that he wanted the trip to focus on building a hawkish anti-Iran consensus in Europe but was repeatedly grilled in press conferences about the judicial reforms.

Mr Netanyahu said his plans were to bring Israel “in line with what is common and acceptable in just about every western democracy”.

He said Israel was being “maligned” and that opponents were casting him as a “potentate who's abolishing democracy and all this nonsense. This is absurd, it's preposterous”.

During the trip, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was watching the fighting over the judicial reforms “with great concern”.

While the Prime Minister was in Berlin, Israelis across the country protested on Thursday, blocking motorways and causing disruption, leading to at least 21 arrests, although the police response seemed to be less severe than in previous weeks.

In recent days, a host of former senior Israeli officials have criticised Mr Netanyahu’s judicial plans, including the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, who said the reforms could cause the service to “disintegrate from within”.

In recent weeks, an increasing number of Israeli reservists have been expressing disquiet, particularly from elite units. Hundreds who serve in military intelligence recently announced that they will stop turning up for duty from Sunday onwards.

Israel, which maintains a relatively small full-time army, relies heavily on its reserve corps across all military fields.

Member of Mr Netanyahu’s government remain defiant, however. On Wednesday, Israel’s transport minister described Mr Herzog’s proposal as “an insult to the intelligence of the public”.

Updated: March 17, 2023, 9:23 AM