Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has delayed controversial plans to weaken the judiciary following mass protests across the country and a general strike. In a televised address on Monday night Mr Netanyahu said he had ordered a “timeout” on the controversial legislation until the next session of the Knesset parliament in the summer in order “to give a real opportunity for real dialogue”.
“One thing I am not willing to accept – 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.
Immediately following his speech opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz blamed Mr Netanyahu for the crisis but said they were willing to participate in a dialogue in an effort to reach a compromise agreeable to all sides. Mr Lapid insisted that the dialogue be led by president Yitzhak Herzog.
However, the distrust between the sides remains palpable, and there is no certainty that the dialogue will actually result in an agreement over reforming the judiciary.
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Mr Netanyahu delayed his address for 10 hours while he negotiated with Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party, who had threatened to pull out of the coalition if the judicial overhaul was suspended.
The prime minister persuaded Mr Ben-Gvir to stay in the government by promising him that the legislation would be completed by the end of July. He also agreed to the establishment of a national guard force that will be under the control of Mr Ben-Gvir’s national security ministry.
Mr Netanyahu’s decision to delay the passage of the legislation came after tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Sunday night in spontaneous protests, blocking roads and key intersections across the country after defence minister Yoav Gallant was fired having called for the freezing of the judicial overhaul. Police used water cannons and mounted units to disperse the crowds amid a feeling that events were spinning out of control.
Following Mr Netanyahu’s announcement on Monday, the Histadrut trade union federation called off the general strike it had earlier launched, bringing much of the Israeli economy to a standstill. “We are all worried about Israel’s fate,” Histadrut chief Arnon Bar-David said during a press conference. “Together we say, enough.”
Dozens of flights were cancelled and ports, factories, shopping malls, banks and universities all closed down as hospitals shifted to an emergency footing. The protests resumed on Monday with 100,000 gathering in Jerusalem outside the Knesset parliament. Protest leaders vowed to continue the demonstrations until the legislation is dropped.
Close by right-wing supporters of the government held a counter-protest, accusing those who had taken to the streets in the last few months of trying to steal the election.