JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a delay in his judicial overhaul plan Monday, saying he wanted to give time to seek a compromise over the contentious package with his political opponents.
Netanyahu made the announcement after two days of large protests against the plan.
“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue,” Netanyahu said in a nationally televised address.
Striking a more conciliatory tone than in previous speeches, he said he was determined to pass a judicial reform but called for “an attempt to achieve broad consensus.”
Immediately after Netanyahu’s statement, the head of the country’s largest trade union said it would call off a general strike that threatened to grind Israel’s economy to a halt.
Netanyahu spoke after tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside parliament and workers launched a nationwide strike Monday 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. Departing flights from the main international airport were grounded. Large mall chains and universities closed their doors, and Israel’s largest trade union called for its 800,000 members to stop work in health care, transit, banking and other fields.
Diplomats walked off the job at foreign missions, and local governments were expected to close preschools and cut other services. The main doctors union announced that its members would also strike.
The growing resistance to Netanyahu’s plan came hours after tens of thousands of people burst into the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at the prime minister’s decision to fire his defense minister after he called for a pause to the overhaul. Chanting “the country is on fire,” they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, closing the thoroughfare and many others throughout the country for hours.
Demonstrators gathered again Monday outside the Knesset, or parliament, turning the streets surrounding the building and the Supreme Court into a roiling sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags dotted with rainbow Pride banners. Large demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa and other cities drew thousands more.
“This is the last chance to stop this move into a dictatorship,” said Matityahu Sperber, 68, who joined a stream of people headed to the protest outside the Knesset. “I’m here for the fight to the end.”
Netanyahu spent the day in consultations with his aides and coalition partners before announcing the delay. Earlier, some members of his Likud party said they would support the prime minister if he heeded calls to halt the overhaul.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been one of the strongest proponents of the plan, announced after meeting with the prime minister that he had agreed to a delay of at least a few weeks.
He said Netanyahu had agreed to bring the legislation for a vote when parliament reconvenes for its summer session on April 30 “if no agreements are reached during the recess.”
Netanyahu gave no timeline for a compromise to be reached in his speech, but expressed hope that the nation would heal and that people would enjoy the upcoming Passover holiday.
The speech appeared to calm tensions, but it did not resolve the underlying tensions behind the protests. Even before he spoke, the grassroots anti-government protest movement said a delay was would not be 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.
The plan — driven by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies in Israel’s most right-wing government ever — has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises.
It has sparked sustained protests that have galvanized nearly all sectors of society, including its military, where reservists have increasingly said publicly that they will not serve a country veering toward autocracy.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens, however, have largely sat out the protests. Many say Israel’s democracy is tarnished by its military rule over their brethren in the West Bank and the discrimination they themselves face.
The turmoil has magnified longstanding and intractable differences over Israel’s character that have riven it since the country was founded. Protesters insist they are fighting for the soul of the nation, saying the overhaul will remove Israel’s system of checks and balances and directly challenge its democratic ideals.
The government has labeled them anarchists out to topple democratically elected leaders. Government officials say the plan will restore balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.
At the center of the crisis is Netanyahu himself, Israel’s longest-serving leader, and questions about the lengths he may be willing to go to maintain his grip on power, even as he battles charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate affairs. He denies wrongdoing.
On Monday afternoon, Netanyahu issued his first statement since he fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, urging against violence ahead of a planned counterprotest in Jerusalem organized by ultranationalist supporters of the judicial overhaul.
Some 20,000 right-wing Israelis attended the counter demonstration, which also took place near parliament and passed without violence. “They won’t steal the election from us,” read a flyer for event, organized by Religious Zionist party.
“I call on all protesters in Jerusalem, right and left, to behave responsibly and not act violently,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.
The firing of Netanyahu’s defense minister at a time of heightened security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere, appeared to be a last straw for many, including apparently the Histadrut, the country’s largest trade union umbrella group, which sat out the monthslong protests before the defense minister’s firing.
“Where are we leading our beloved Israel? To the abyss,” Arnon Bar-David, the group’s head, said in a rousing speech to applause. “Today we are stopping everyone’s descent toward the abyss.”
On Monday, as the embers of the highway bonfires were cleared, Israel’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, called again for an immediate halt to the overhaul.
“The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society — all are under threat,” he said. “Wake up now!”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the crisis was driving Israel to the brink.
“We’ve never been closer to falling apart. Our national security is at risk, our economy is crumbling, our foreign relations are at their lowest point ever. We don’t know what to say to our children about their future in this country,” Lapid said.
The developments were being watched by the Biden administration, which is closely allied with Israel yet has been uneasy with Netanyahu and the far-right elements of his government. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the United States was “deeply concerned” by the developments.
The architect of the plan, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a popular party member, had long promised he would resign if the overhaul was suspended. But on Monday, he said he would respect the prime minister’s decision should he halt the legislation.
Netanyahu’s dismissal of Gallant appeared to signal that the prime minister and his allies would barrel ahead. Gallant was the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against the plan, saying the deep divisions threatened to weaken the military.
And Netanyahu’s government forged ahead with a centerpiece of the overhaul — a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments. A parliamentary committee approved the legislation on Monday for a final vote, which could come this week.
The government also seeks to pass laws that would grant the Knesset the authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.
A separate law that would circumvent a Supreme Court ruling to allow a key coalition ally to serve as minister was delayed following a request from that party’s leader.