Israel PM Netanyahu delays judicial overhaul after protests

Al-Jazeera  /  March 27, 2023

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 paralyze 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 criticize 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,” organizers 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.



Israel’s Netanyahu suspends judicial overhaul amid protests

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  March 227, 2023

Israelis woke up to chaos on Monday, as protests over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul shutdown the country.

Israelis woke up to chaos on Monday, as protests over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul engulfed the country.

Flights were grounded at Ben Gurion International Airport, while Israeli embassies across the world stopped work in solidarity with demonstrators.

More than 80,000 anti-government protesters gathered outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, according to police sources cited in Haaretz

Former Defence minister and opposition figure Benny Gantz said: “We don’t have another country, we don’t have another homeland. We don’t have another path, only a Jewish and democratic country.”

Right-wing figures within Netanyahu’s coalition appeared to be gearing up for a protracted fight.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich joined calls earlier on Monday for a counter-demonstration in Jerusalem in support of the judicial reforms.

“Come to Jerusalem,” he said in a statement, according to The Times of Israel.

“We must not stop the reform aimed at fixing the justice system and Israeli democracy. We must not surrender to violence, anarchy, military service refusals and wild strikes.”

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir also tweeted his support for counter-protests. 

“Today we stop being silent. Today the right wakes up. Spread further,” he wrote, accompanied by a poster with details for the rally outside the Knesset on Monday evening. 

Ben-Gvir threatened to resign if the reforms were halted, but continue to support the government from the outside. 

Netanyahu blinks 

By Monday evening, however, Netanyahu blinked. The Israeli leader announced he was delaying his government’s contentious remake of the country’s courts. 

“Out of a sense of national responsibility, out of a will to prevent a rupture among our people, I have decided to pause the second and third readings of the bill,” he told the country’s legislature.

Ben Gvir agreed to the delay in return for allowing the creation of a “national guard” loyal to his ministry.

Ameer Makhoul, a Palestinian analyst based in the city of Haifa in Israel, told Middle East Eye that Netanyahu’s promise to Ben-Gvir of a “national guard” was a bigger win for the far-right than the reforms themselves.

He said the national guard, which Ben-Gvir claims is needed to increase security around Israel and would be loyal to his national security ministry, would have as its “core ideology” hostility to Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The move was welcomed by Netanyahu’s opponents. Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said he was ready for dialogue, but only if the government’s announced pause was genuine.

“If the legislation truly and totally stops, we are ready to engage in a real dialogue,” he said in a TV address, but wanted to be sure “that there is no ruse or bluff” on Netanyahu’s part. 

US calls for compromise

Israel’s main labour union also called off a nationwide strike Monday night, with Arnon Bar-David, chairman of the Histadrut labour federation, praising Netanyahu for the move and offering to help craft a compromise reform. 

The pause comes as many warned Israel was on the brink of civil conflict. Earlier on Monday, Israel’s army chief of staff warned that a “storm is brewing at home” as thousands of military reservists threatened not to serve in the military if the reform passes. 

The White House said it welcomed the delay to move forward with the overhaul and urged the Israeli parties to leave space for compromise.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, however, told reporters that the US remained concerned about the situation in Israel, adding that Biden had been “very forthright” with Netanyahu about his concerns.

Across Israel, the tension between pro- and anti-government protestors was still palpable. MEE observed the two sides confronting each other at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli junction, a main protest hub.

A few hundred right-wing protesters gathered at the junction to show support for the judicial reforms, carrying signs that said “lefties are traitors”.