Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed on Monday his plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary in the face of massive street protests and a nationwide workers strike opposing it.
Netanyahu said he was ordering the “timeout" on the controversial legislation — until the summer session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament — in order "to give a real opportunity for real dialogue."
Describing it as a way to “avoid civil war,” Netanyahu vowed to reach a “broad consensus” during the parliamentary session, which begins April 30.
The prime minister’s plan called for greater parliamentary control of the judiciary, including the appointment of judges and the right to overturn decisions it did not like.
It has sharply divided the Jewish state and led some reservists to say that if the plan were enacted they would not serve in the Israeli military and claimed that the country was veering toward an autocracy. Meanwhile, elements of Netanyahu’s narrow legislative majority have continued to call for its enactment.
In announcing the delay, Netanyahu said, "One thing I am not willing to accept — there are a minority of extremists that are willing to tear our country to shreds ... escorting us to civil war and calling for refusal of army service, which is a terrible crime."
Before Netanyahu’s announcement, Israeli workers launched a nationwide strike Monday, and tens of thousands of people demonstrated again outside of parliament.
The latest demonstrations erupted after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday, a day after the defense chief expressed his opposition to Netanyahu’s proposals.
The work stoppages were widespread, with departing flights grounded from the country’s main international airport near Tel Aviv, and large shopping malls and universities also shutting down. Israel’s largest trade union called for its 800,000 members — in health, transit, banking and other occupations — to stop work. The main doctors’ union said its members would also strike, and the Israeli stock exchange announced it would be closed Tuesday.
Isaac Herzog, the ceremonial Israeli president, urged Netanyahu to immediately halt the controversial judicial overhaul.
“The entire nation is rapt with deep worry,” Herzog said early Monday. “Wake up, now!”
After Netanyahu’s announcement, Herzog wrote, "Stopping the legislation is the right thing. This is the time to start an honest, serious and responsible conversation that will quickly calm [tensions] and lower the flames. For the sake of our unity and for the future of our children, we need to start talking here and now."
In a sign that tensions were beginning to ease, Israel’s main trade union called off the strikes following Netanyahu’s announcement.
However, protest leaders said that they would continue to hold demonstrations until the proposed legislation was dropped entirely.
The White House welcomed Netanyahu’s announcement and urged Israeli leaders to find a comprise.
“Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday.
In a recent conversation with Netanyahu, U.S. President Joe Biden called for recognition of democratic norms in Israel, including an independent judiciary, and asked him to reconsider his plans.
Initially, it was not clear how Netanyahu, on trial for corruption charges that he denies, would respond to calls for a delay. Some members of his Likud Party said they would support him if he postponed his push for the changes.
But he made no major pronouncements early Monday. In the afternoon, he issued his first statement since he fired Gallant, writing on Twitter, "I call on all protesters in Jerusalem, right and left, to behave responsibly and not act violently.”
Gallant warned in a televised statement Saturday that the divide over the issue is “seeping into the military and security agencies,” representing a security threat for the country.
Ultranationalist supporters of the judicial overhaul held their own demonstration Monday outside the Knesset, drawing some 20,000 people.
"They won't steal the election from us," read a flyer for the event, organized by the Religious Zionist Party.
The plan by Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader and now head of the country’s most right-wing government ever, has plunged the country into one of its worst domestic crises. The protests have lasted for weeks.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.