Israel's Netanyahu 'pauses' judicial reform until next session after mass protests

More than 80,000 people protested against controversial legislation on Monday

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put his plans for judicial reform on hold. Reuters
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will delay the process for discussions on the planned judicial overhaul to next month.

Further readings of the justice bill will be delayed until after the Passover recess, he said on Monday evening, confirming a statement from a right-wing party in his government coalition.

The statement said the legislation would be pushed to the next session of the Israeli parliament to "pass the reform through dialogue". Parliament will go on recess next week for the Passover holiday.

From his office in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu said he had "paused" the readings to reach a broad consensus "to prevent the rift in the nation".

He placed the blame on an "extremist minority" trying to divide the country and criticised army reservists who have refused to serve amid widespread controversy over the proposed reforms.

"There are a minority of extremists that are willing to tear our country to shreds ... escorting us to civil war and calling for refusal of army service, which is a terrible crime," he said.

Israel came to a standstill as more than 80,000 people took to the streets to protest against the judicial reforms and Mr Netanyahu's dismissal of a government minister opposing the legislation.

The proposed changes, which critics have called an attack on Israel's democracy, would make it harder for the Supreme Court's powers to rule against the legislature and the executive. They would also give the government more power to appoint judges.

The reforms have split the newly formed government, with far-right ministers such as Itamar Ben-Gvir threatening to resign if the legislation does not pass.

The summer session is not due to begin until April 30, giving rival sides time to reach a compromise as Israel is rocked by its biggest protests.

Mr Ben-Gvir said the prime minister had agreed to bring to a parliamentary vote “if no agreements are reached during the recess”.

The decision came as more than 80,000 Israelis took to the streets and almost all major industries went on strike on Monday in response to the proposed legislation and the firing of the country's defence minister, who mounted a vociferous attack on the bill at the weekend.

Diplomats at Israeli missions overseas were among the government employees on strike as Israelis took to the streets of major cities, chanting "the country is on fire".

Departing flights from Ben Gurion, the country’s main international airport were grounded, large retail chains and universities shut their doors, and Israel's largest trade union called for its 800,000 members — in health, transit, banking and other fields — to stop work.

Strikes were called off by the union, Histadrut labour federation, after Mr Netanyahu's speech.

"The strike that I announced this morning will end," said Arnon Bar-David, chairman of Histadrut, on Monday, praising Netanyahu for the move and offering help in forming a reform with mutual agreement.

The government had wanted to ratify the bill concerning judicial appointments by April 2, before the recess. Others had already been deferred to April 30.

Right-wing backers of the overhaul have called on supporters to counter-protest later on Monday.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has come under fire for anti-Palestinian comments, was expected to attend the counter-protest.

"I call on all protesters in Jerusalem, from the left or the right, to act in a responsible manner and not act with violence," Mr Netanyahu tweeted.

Ron, a teenager, is out with five of his classmates.

They are waiting eagerly by a stage on which they hope their "hero" Mr Smotrich will soon speak.

"The opposition say the people don’t want reform, but they are the real minority and everyone here is the people," he tells The National.

Protester Zev Soane said the fight was not over, despite the delay.

"We have a saying: we’re not afraid of the long path. Evil people can stoop to lows that good people can’t, so it will take time. We’ll just have to beat them in the next election, which we’ll do by even more," he said.

Zev’s daughter, Tikvah, shouted over the crowd “and I’m a woman who supports the reforms”.

His son, Azriel, lamented the discourse about Israel's reservists.

“According to the other side I shouldn’t exist: I work in high tech and I’m a reservist. Well here I am. And I feel betrayed by my countrymen”.

Mr Smotrich is a key member of the far-right coalition which helped propel Mr Netanyahu back to power in November.

Israel has been rocked by protests for months but current demonstrations have been fuelled by Mr Netanyahu's dismissal of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

Mr Gallant, a member of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, had strongly criticised the Prime Minister’s plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary.

The prime minister is now willing to allow Mr Gallant to return as minister as long as he resigns from parliament - preventing him from voting against the judicial reforms - Kan public broadcaster reported.

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement: "The UK welcomes the decision today by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pause legislation to reform Israel’s judiciary.”

“The UK enjoys a deep and historic relationship with Israel.

“As Prime Minister [Rishi Sunak] stressed in his meeting with PM Netanyahu last week, it is vital that the shared democratic values that underpin that relationship are upheld, and a robust system of checks and balances are preserved.

“We urge all parties to find common ground and seek a long-term compromise to this sensitive issue.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “We welcome this announcement as an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise.

“A compromise is precisely what we have been calling for and we continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible. We believe that it is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizen to find this compromise.

“Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support.

“And so that's what we're going to continue to call for."

Updated: March 28, 2023, 6:07 AM