Israel's President calls for dialogue to 'calm the waters' after judicial reform crisis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bowed to pressure on Monday and paused deeply controversial legislation

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Israeli President Isaac Herzog has urged politicians to engage in dialogue to “calm the waters and lower the flames” over a controversial judicial overhaul.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday night that he would pause legislation that sparked a nationwide strike and mass demonstrations.

The shekel strengthened in early trade and institutions reopened after a day of unprecedented strikes and protests.

Mr Herzog hailed the decision to pause the reforms as “the right thing” and said that now was the time to start a “sincere, serious, and responsible dialogue”.

Mr Netanyahu bowed to mountain pressure to delay his attempt to drastically limited the power of the country’s Supreme Court and wider judiciary. He wanted to give the elected government more of a say in appointing senior legal officials and the ability to strike down certain rulings.

Benjamin Netanyahu delays judicial overhaul after huge protests

Benjamin Netanyahu delays judicial overhaul after huge protests

“I am aware of the enormous tension that is building between the two sides, between two parts of the nation, and I am attentive to the desire of many citizens to dispel this tension,” he said as he announced the move.

The embattled Prime Minister told the UK's Piers Morgan in a show aired last night that the proposal was a “democratic reform” needed to rebalance the powers between the three branches of government. But opponents have branded the move as dangerous and Mr Herzog has previously called the plans “oppressive”.

The President spoke to Mr Netanyahu and leading opposition leaders after Monday's announcement and asked them to begin a “negotiation process” to reach a compromise before the summer session of parliament, which starts on April 30.

Opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz say they are open to talks and are drafting names for their negotiating teams, but again called for the reforms to be scrapped.

“If the legislation really does stop, genuinely and totally, we are ready to launch a genuine dialogue at the President’s residence,” Mr Lapid said.

But the reforms are central to the agenda of Mr Netanyahu's far-right coalition government and his hardline allies have insisted that they go ahead.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist who has pushed for the quick passage of the reforms, said the bill “will pass”, though he would respect the delay.

“No one will scare us,” he tweeted.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, urged supporters on Monday to rally in defence of the reforms.

“We must not surrender to violence, anarchy, military service refusals and wild strikes,” he said.

Rival demonstrations in favour and against the measures clashed with police overnight. Members of a far-right group who support the reforms attacked Arab-Israelis and chanted sectarian slogans.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have been protesting for weeks but the situation escalated on Sunday night after Mr Netanyahu fired defence minister Yoav Gallant for criticising the reforms.

The chaos shut down much of the country and hit the economy.

Flights from Israel's main airport were cancelled and shopping centres, universities and some hospitals closed.

Then the country's largest union called its 800,000 members to stop work in the healthcare, transport, banking and other sectors in the first strike over a political issue in it's history.

Even diplomats in embassies around the world walked off the job and local governments went on strike or cut services.

While the union said it would halt the strike after Mr Netanyahu announced a pause, potentially buying him some time to find a deal, Shikma Bressler, one of the leaders of the anti-government protest movement, said the campaign would continue until the legislation is cancelled.

“This is just an attempt to weaken the protests in order to enact Netanyahu’s dictatorship,” she said. “Now is not the time to reduce the pressure, but to increase it.”

Additional reporting by agencies

Updated: March 28, 2023, 1:22 PM