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Natan Sharansky
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President Herzog’s initiative is not perfect, but I support it

For Israelis to simply say ‘no’ with the sort of ferocity that was appropriate when I faced the KGB is a tragic mistake when we face one another
Former refusenik, prisoner of Zion, Soviet dissident and Israeli cabinet minister, Natan Sharansky in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Former refusenik, prisoner of Zion, Soviet dissident and Israeli cabinet minister, Natan Sharansky in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

I hoped for a different proposal. But despite my disappointment, I support President Isaac Herzog’s initiative.

Here is why.

When I was a prisoner in the Gulag, life was hard but very simple. I may have suffered from privation, isolation, and cold, but all I had to do – my one consistent task – was to keep saying “no” to the KGB. And always, even and especially in the hardest of moments, I knew that the entire Jewish people stood behind me, supporting me as I went on saying “no.”

When I landed in Israel, life became easier and happier, but also far more complicated. Surrounded by my loved ones and my people, I could no longer dedicate myself to the simple task of rejecting enemy pressures. Instead, I had to decide where to say “yes” and where to say “no” in a vast arena of opinions, policies, and ideas, where no one was my enemy, and where the ultimate goal wasn’t defeating a foe but rather shaping our shared future and space.

As I started navigating this arena, I always remembered how my people – all my people – gave me strength in the punishing cell. I always remembered that even my most vocal political opponents here in Israel are still, inherently, my allies in a grand joint venture. I always remembered that even if I said “no” when they said “yes,” or vice versa, our ultimate goal wasn’t to separate from one another, but rather to shape the beloved country we all share.

I fear that in the past few months, we have forgotten these truths. The coalition is pushing its reform without regard to the pain and hopes of millions of citizens. Some of the protesters are declaring, quite clearly, that they reject more than a particular reform – that they reject the legitimacy of the elected government itself, thus dismissing the votes of their fellow citizens. Much of the rhetoric we hear every day now isn’t aimed at negotiating our shared future; rather, it speaks to a desire to seize this future away from “the other side,” and shape it unilaterally, by force.

I support President Herzog’s initiative because it offers a way out of this dangerous situation. Do I agree with all of his proposal’s particulars? No. Do I think it needs to be altered? Yes. But this compromise doesn’t have to be accepted or rejected wholesale. Nor does it usurp the Knesset’s role in approving whatever is ultimately agreed upon, or the judiciary’s role in commenting on its legal ramifications. Rather, the president’s proposal offers us the opportunity to come together again and sit around the negotiation table. Simply saying “no” with the sort of ferocity that was appropriate when facing the KGB is a tragic mistake when we face one another.

The greatest threat we face today isn’t the approval or dismissal of the judiciary overhaul. Despite my own concerns regarding the content of the judiciary reform as it stands today, I don’t believe Israel will cease to be a vibrant democracy in either case. Whatever we decide now isn’t doomed to be the final word.

No, the true danger is that we will stop talking with each other, stop building our consensus, stop finding places where we can say “yes” to one another and to the values we yet share. Consensus is important, foundational even, to the functioning of all democracies, but it is especially crucial in Israel, where we deal with weighty tasks that require cooperation and agreement, like kibbutz galuyot – the ingathering of the exiles – maintaining a democratic regime in the hostile environment of the middle east, defending ourselves against relentless enemies with a people’s army, and maintaining our cooperation with diaspora Jewry, as we rely on their support against insistent efforts to delegitimize Israel’s very existence.

How can we do any of this without discussing the best ways to move forward? How can we achieve our shared goals if we can’t even sit around the same negotiation table?

I don’t approve of every part of the president’s proposal any more than I agree with every part of his speech. I wish President Herzog would have called upon the protesters to stop using extreme slogans that reject the elected government’s legitimacy. I wish he would have strongly urged the government to slow down their rush to ratify the reform in its current format.

My protesting friends, toxic slogans about dictatorship don’t only misrepresent reality, they also cause us enormous damage, deepening divides and supplying our enemies with weapons against us at a dangerous time.

My friends on the right, I believe that after Oslo’s collapse and the disastrous consequences of the disengagement from Gaza, you will have the opportunity to lead the country for many years as long as you stand at the helm of a broad coalition. Why rush and destroy the social fabric of Israel in the process? Go slow, go steadily, go forth while building ties and bridges, or you will burn the ground upon which we stand.

But my opinions about this part or that of President’s Herzog’s speech and proposal aren’t important.

What’s important is that if we use the president’s proposal as an opportunity to go back to the negotiation table, we might avert disaster and start rebuilding the joint discourse that Israel – that we all – need.

About the Author
Natan Sharansky is a politician, human rights activist and author who, as a refusenik in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, spent nine years in Soviet prisons. He served as Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency from June 2009 until August 2018.