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Mar 27, 2023
Israel’s Netanyahu Pauses Legal Overhaul Push After Protests
(Bloomberg) -- After a day of almost unprecedented strikes and protests, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he’ll delay a controversial plan to weaken the judiciary and prevent the nation being “torn to shreds.”
As tens of thousands of demonstrators remained on the streets Monday night, Netanyahu said he’ll seek talks with opponents to reach a compromise over how much power the high court can have over the legislature.
“When there is a chance to avoid a civil war through dialog, I, as prime minister, will take a pause for dialog,” he said in a televised address from this office.
The climbdown means at least a four-week delay to parliamentary votes on a bill that has split Israeli society in two, triggering one of the most sustained periods of civil unrest in the country’s history. The strength of opposition moved up a level over the weekend, when Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and the economy was brought to a virtual standstill Monday due to a nationwide strike.
The overhaul aims to give politicians dominance in the selection of judges, a move opponents say will threaten Israel’s democracy. However, there will be a rebalance of power between the high court and the legislature one way or another, the prime minister said, signaling the likelihood of more upheaval to come.
Israel Latest: Netanyahu Set to Delay Plan as Protests Escalate
Netanyahu was speaking after workers in multiple sectors ranging from ports to shopping malls and hotels stopped doing their jobs. A main union group called off the strike following his comments, while Israeli embassies said they’d reopen and the airport said it would resume flights.
Netanyahu made his speech after coming to agreement with a key rightist member of his coalition, Itamar Ben Gvir, who’d originally threatened to leave the government if the judicial overhaul was delayed. As part of his agreement to accept a pause, Ben Gvir will be granted oversight over a new national guard that he says is needed to increase security.
Opposition leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid said they are ready for talks although expressed concern about the sincerity of the offer. They said they’d go to President Isaac Herzog’s house for the discussions.
Others said the speech didn’t go far enough and they’d continue to fight.
No Cooling Down
“We are not going to cool down anything,” Shikma Bressler, a physicist who has been leading protests, said by phone. “We know Netanyahu for too long and we care about the country too much to be tricked and fooled again. The legislation is not going forward this week, so that is a great victory for the struggle. But we have a long road ahead of us.”
The demonstrations have gone on weekly or more than three months. They’ve been led by business people, tech innovators and members of elite military units, mostly secular Israelis who fear Netanyahu’s new right-wing religious government will pull the society too far toward theocracy.
Lapid said on Monday night that what had happened over the previous 24 hours, including the firing of Gallant, was “madness, a loss of control and a loss of direction. It is proof that this government has lost its brakes.” He said if the legislation truly stops, he is open to negotiation.
Meanwhile, supporters of the judicial overhaul haven’t spent much time on the streets because their leaders have been in charge and promising to pass the bill. Now they too are promising to make their angry voices heard. Already on Monday night, there were acts of vandalism and some confrontations between the two sides.
April in Israel is filled with holidays including Passover, Memorial Day and Independence Day, offering some respite due to vacation plans, but a compromise may not prove easy to reach in the longer term.
--With assistance from Amy Teibel.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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