Benjamin Netanyahu says he will delay reforms for several weeks after tens of thousands protested against the plans.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that a controversial plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary will be delayed after months of protests, growing labour strikes and opposition from within his own government.
“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a time out for dialogue,” Netanyahu said in a nationally televised address on Monday.
He said he was determined to pass a judicial reform but called for “an attempt to achieve broad consensus”. The delay means that the bill will not be put to a vote in parliament until the end of April at the earliest.
The government’s plan to tighten parliament’s control over judicial processes has triggered some of the biggest mass protests in Israeli history, with the plan’s opponents calling the move a threat to democracy.
Netanyahu spoke after tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside the Knesset or parliament and workers launched a nationwide strike in a dramatic escalation of the mass protest movement aimed at halting his plan.
The chaos shut down much of the country and threatened to paralyse the economy, with flights suspended at Ben Gurion International Airport and work halted at the country’s main seaports. Kindergartens and malls were also closed, as well as branches of the fast food chain McDonald’s.
Shortly after the address, the head of the country’s biggest labour union, Histadrut, said it would call off a general strike.
Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition partner, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said he had agreed to the delay in return for a deal that he could form a national guard under his ministry – a move opponents fiercely criticise as giving him his own private militia.
Before the prime minister’s address, the grassroots anti-government protest movement said a delay was not enough.
“A temporary freeze does not suffice, and the national protests will continue to intensify until the law is rejected in the Knesset,” organisers said.
Haggai Matar, executive director of +972 magazine told Al Jazeera that the halt to the reform was probably a “delaying tactic”.
“The opposition and the protest movement have said, time and time again, two things that need to serve as a foundation for negotiations,” he said.
“One is completely stopping, not just slightly delaying, the legislation process. Right now the legislation process is at a point where Netanyahu, if he wanted to, can revive it and within less than a day have it approved.
“That is what some people in the opposition say is like having a gun pointed to our temple and then saying ‘let’s negotiate.’”
Opposition leader Benny Gantz said the decision was “better late than never” but that he would not compromise on the “basics of democracy” in any dialogue on the new law.
The United States welcomed Netanyahu’s announcement and urged Israeli leaders to negotiate.
We “strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible,” said White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said US President Joe Biden had been “very forthright” with Netanyahu regarding his concerns over the situation.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also welcomed the announcement.
“It is vital that the shared democratic values that underpin that (UK-Israel) relationship are upheld, and a robust system of checks and balances are preserved,” Cleverly said.
Netanyahu’s announcement had initially been expected earlier in the day, but was delayed after far-right members of his government reportedly urged him to not back down.
The struggle over the plans illustrates the deep divide in Israeli society between supporters of the government, who say the judicial changes are necessary, and the growing number of people opposed to Netanyahu’s plan, who argue that the moves will weaken the independence of the judiciary and turn Israel into an autocracy.
Earlier, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose ceremonial role normally means that he does not get involved in day-to-day politics, also called for the legislative process to stop.
“For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility, I call on you to stop the legislative process immediately,” Herzog said on Monday morning.
Herzog’s comments came after protesters took to the streets on Sunday night in several Israeli cities after Netanyahu fired Defence Minister Yoav Gallant a day after Gallant called on television for Netanyahu to halt his proposal, as it was threatening the country’s national security.
A number of army reservists have refused to be called up in protest at the government’s plan, leading to fears in Israel that the country’s military readiness would be impacted.