Bowing to a wave of mass protests, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed his controversial judicial reform plan on Monday and said he wanted to “avoid civil war” by taking the time to reach a compromise with political opponents.
The announcement appears to have calmed some of the tensions that have fueled three months of unrest. But it failed to address the core issues polarizing the nation, and the anti-government protest movement vowed to step up its efforts.
In his primetime speech, Netanyahu, who has previously rejected calls to delay the legislation, struck a more conciliatory tone than in recent speeches. He acknowledged the country’s deep divisions and said he was pressing the stop button “to prevent a rift in the nation”.
He said, “When there is an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, take time out for dialogue.” He pledged to reach a “broad consensus” during the summer session of parliament, which begins on April 30.
Speaking after tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside parliament, the country’s largest labor union launched a nationwide strike in a dramatic escalation of the mass protest movement against his plan.
Anti-government demonstrators block streets and clash with police during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to reform the justice system.
On the night of March 27, 2023, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halted a judicial reform that led to a general strike, political division and mass protests, in the country’s most serious internal crisis in years.
An Israeli protester throws a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into fire after clashes broke out during a demonstration
The dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on March 26 exacerbated the political crisis
An Israeli demonstrator is arrested by the police during clashes after the demonstration
Netanyahu and his religious and ultra-nationalist allies introduced sweeping reform in January just days after forming their government, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
A protester waves an Israeli flag as police officers use water cannons after clashes erupt
The proposal plunged Israel into its worst internal crisis in decades. Business leaders, top economists and former security chiefs have all opposed the plan, saying it pushes the country toward authoritarianism. Fighter pilots and reservists threatened not to show up for duty, and the country’s currency, the shekel, plummeted in value.
The plan would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his allies the final say in appointing the nation’s judges. It also gives Parliament, which is controlled by its allies, the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit the court’s ability to review laws.
Netanyahu argued that reform is necessary to rein in a liberal and overly intrusive court of unelected judges. But his opponents say the package will harm the country’s system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu’s allies. They also say he has a conflict of interest as a criminal defendant.
Tens of thousands of people, largely secular middle-class Israelis, regularly join mass protests against the plan.
Those demonstrations escalated Sunday night after Netanyahu abruptly fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had urged the prime minister to shelve his plan, citing concerns about harm to the IDF.
The shooting sparked a spontaneous outburst of anger, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in just an hour.
Chanting “The country is on fire,” they set fires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, blocking the road and many other roads across the country for hours.
On Monday, demonstrators outside the Knesset, or parliament, continued to turn the streets around the building and the Supreme Court into a raging sea of blue and white Israeli flags dotted with rainbow banners.
Anti-government protesters burn tires and a flag near Beit Yanai, Israel
“This is the last chance to stop this transition to dictatorship,” said Matityahu Sperber, 68, who joined a group of people who headed to protest outside the Knesset. “I am here to fight to the end.”
Israel’s main trade union, the Histadrut, declared a general strike in what it said was the first time it had implemented such a measure on a political issue.
The chaos has locked down most of the country and threatens to cripple the economy. Flights departing from the main international airport were grounded, stranding tens of thousands of passengers.
Major commercial center chains and universities closed their doors, and the union called on its 800,000 members to stop work in the areas of health care, transit, banking and other fields.
Diplomats quit their jobs at foreign missions, and local governments were expected to close nurseries and cut other services. The main doctors union announced that its members would also go on strike.
In a sign of calming tensions, the union said late Monday it was halting the strike in response to Netanyahu’s delay.
The ad seemed to buy the embattled Netanyahu several weeks of calm. But it is not yet clear whether the differences can be resolved.
The figurehead head of state, Isaac Herzog, said stopping the legislative onslaught was “the right thing”.
“This is the time for a frank, serious and responsible discussion that will urgently calm the spirits and put out the flames,” he said.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said he was ready for a “real dialogue” under the auspices of Herzog.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, an ultra-nationalist who pushed for swift passage of the package, said he would respect the delay but showed few signs of compromise.
“The reform will pass,” he wrote on Twitter. “No one will scare us.”
The first in a series of laws – which give the coalition control over judicial appointments – was due to be passed this week.
Before Netanyahu’s speech, some 20,000 right-wing Israelis took part in a counter-demonstration in support of the prime minister. That demonstration also took place near Parliament and passed without violence.
“They will not steal the elections from us,” wrote a flyer for an event organized by the religious Zionist party. Netanyahu said he was “touched” by the show of support.
Schekma Pressler, one of the leaders of the anti-government protest movement, said the campaign will continue until the legislation is repealed.
“This is just an attempt to weaken the protests in order to activate Netanyahu’s dictatorship,” she said. “Now is not the time to reduce stress, but to increase it.”
Former Israeli ambassador to the UK Mark Regev has defended Netanyahu’s proposal for judicial reform, arguing that it was part of the government’s agenda when the prime minister was re-elected last year.
Speaking about the mass protests against the controversial reforms, Mr Regev told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘There were tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets (in Israel), but a poll was done, and this was the Israeli election in November 1.
This government was elected by a majority and judicial reform was part of its agenda.
Even the people who voted for government support the idea that it should be done in a less confrontational way, that it be done through consensus.
“I think there is support on both sides of the legal divide for this dialogue process, which I hope will work, but I’m not sure it will work.”
He added, “All coalition governments involve concessions, and I am sure that from his point of view, Netanyahu did not re-elect him as prime minister only to see other people control the agenda.”
Dozens of protesters from rival sides faced off late Monday in central Tel Aviv. They exchanged insults between the two sides, who were removed by the police, but there was no violence. Police used water cannons to disperse anti-government protesters.
Palestinian citizens of Israel stayed away from the protests. Many say that Israel’s democracy has been marred by its military rule over its brothers in the West Bank and the discrimination they themselves face.
White House press secretary Karen Jean-Pierre told reporters that the Biden administration, which has been uncomfortable with Netanyahu and far-right elements in his government, welcomed the announcement as “an opportunity to find more time and space for compromise.”