Israel PM Netanyahu delays judicial overhaul after protests

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Maya Alleruzzo/Pool via Reuters/File)

After months of protests, growing labour strikes, and resistance from his party, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that a controversial plan to reform the country's judiciary would be delayed.

In a nationally televised address on Monday, Netanyahu declared, "When there is a possibility to avert civil war through negotiation, I will take a break for dialogue."

He stated he was committed to passing a judicial reform but urged "an attempt to reach wide consensus." The delay means that the bill will not be put to vote in the legislature until, at the earliest, the end of April.

The government's intention to strengthen parliament's influence over judicial processes has sparked some of the largest mass demonstrations in Israeli history, with opponents of the plan deeming the move a threat to democracy.

Netanyahu spoke as tens of thousands of Israelis gathered outside the Knesset or parliament. Workers launched a statewide strike in a dramatic escalation of the significant protest movement intended to stop his agenda.

The unrest threatened to paralyze the economy as Ben Gurion International Airport and the country's significant seaports ceased operations. Kindergartens, malls, and branches of the McDonald's fast food chain were also closed.

The leader of the country's largest labour union, Histadrut, announced shortly after the speech that a national strike would be cancelled.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a partner in Netanyahu's far-right coalition, stated that he had agreed to the delay in exchange for the ability to form a national guard under his ministry – a move that opponents fiercely criticize as granting him his private militia.

Before the prime minister's address, the grassroots anti-government protest movement argued a postponement was not enough.

"A temporary freeze is insufficient, and the nationwide protests will continue to escalate until the Knesset rejects the measure," warned the organizers.

Haggai Matar, the editor-in-chief of +972 magazine, told Al Jazeera that the reform's suspension was likely a "delaying strategy."

"The opposition and the protest movement have repeatedly stated that two things must serve as the basis for negotiations," he stated.

"One is entirely blocking the legislation process, not just marginally delaying. Netanyahu could resurrect the legislative process and pass it within less than a day if he desired.

Some opposition members claim this is akin to pointing a gun at our temple and saying, "Let's negotiate."

Benny Gantz, the opposition leader, stated that the decision was "better late than never." Still, he would not compromise on the "fundamentals of democracy" in any dialogue regarding the new law.

The United States applauded Netanyahu's announcement and pushed Israeli authorities to enter into negotiations.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre stated, "We strongly urge Israeli officials to reach a compromise as quickly as possible."

John Kirby, the national security spokesman for the White House, stated that US Vice President Joe Biden was "quite candid" with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his concerns regarding the situation.

James Cleverly, the British foreign secretary, also praised 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 been anticipated earlier in the day, but it was reportedly postponed after members of his government persuaded him not to back down.

The conflict over the plans exemplifies the profound schism 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 changes will erode the independence of the judiciary and transform Israel into an autocracy.

Earlier, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose ceremonial job ordinarily precludes him from engaging in day-to-day politics, also called for a halt to the legislative process.

"For the sake of the unity of the Israeli people and the sake of responsibility, I urge you to halt the legislative process immediately," Herzog stated Monday morning.

Herzog's remarks come as demonstrators took to the streets in multiple Israeli towns on Sunday night in response to Netanyahu's dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a day after Gallant urged Netanyahu to postpone his proposal because it threatened the country's national security.

In response to the government's proposal, several army reservists have refused to be called up, causing Israelis to fear for the country's military readiness.

Publish : 2023-03-28 11:42:00

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