Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to back down on controversial plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary on Monday, amid widespread strikes and protests as well as mounting international pressure.
On a momentous day for Israel, Netanyahu said he would delay votes on the remaining legislation until after the Knesset’s Passover recess in April “to give time for a real chance for a real debate.” In a televised address, Netanyahu said that he was “aware of the tensions” and is “listening to the people.”
“Out of the responsibility to the nation, I decided to delay … the vote, in order to give time for discussion,” he added.
But Netanyahu indicated that the pause was only temporary. He insisted that the overhaul was necessary, and reiterated criticism of refusal to train or serve in the military in protest at the planned changes. “Refusing is the end of our country,” he said.
After Netanyahu’s announcement, Arnon Bar-David, the leader of the Histadrut labor union, announced that a general strike, which swept the nation on Monday, would now be called off. “The general strike stops from this moment,” Bar-David told CNN affiliate Channel 13. But he warned Netanyahu against reviving the legislation.
“If the prime minister returns to aggressive legislation he’ll find us facing him. Legislation without consent will be met with a general strike.”
It was unclear whether Netanyahu’s partial climbdown would end the roiling anger on the streets. “The protests will continue unless Netanyahu will note publicly that he was mistaken when leading that reform, and (that) he is holding all future motivations to renew the judicial reform,” Tamir Hayman, managing director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told CNN.
“This is the only scenario where we will see a complete stop of all the demonstrations,” said Hayman, a former head of the Israeli Intelligence Directorate.
Nonetheless, key Israeli allies welcomed Netanyahu’s announcement. For the US, the delay represents “an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also hailed the decision and his country’s relationship with Israel. “It is vital that the shared democratic values that underpin that relationship are upheld, and a robust system of checks and balances are preserved,” said Cleverly.
However concerns have been raised over the terms of the deal Netanyahu struck with his coalition partners.
Earlier Monday, the far-right Jewish Power party revealed that the deal to delay the legislation would involve the creation of a National Guard controlled by party leader and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak told CNN that the move is a “lunatic step” due to Ben Gvir’s lengthy criminal record, which includes a conviction for inciting racism and supporting terrorism.
The original proposals would have amounted to the most sweeping overhaul of the Israeli legal system since the country’s founding. The most significant changes would allow a simple majority in the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings; the Netanyahu government also sought to change the way judges are selected, and remove government ministries’ independent legal advisers, whose opinions are binding.
But months of sustained protests over the plans drew global attention and rocked the country. The political crisis deepened on Sunday when Netanyahu’s office announced the firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in a one-line statement, after he became the first member of the cabinet to call for a pause to the controversial plans.
In the hours that followed, Israeli society ground to a halt as anger at the bill mounted. Netanyahu was also condemned by his opponents and a host of former Israeli prime ministers.
“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. We have been taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries,” former Prime Minister Yair Lapid said at the Knesset.
As he fought to push ahead with his effort last week, Netanyahu’s government also passed a law making it harder to oust prime ministers that was condemned by critics as a self-preservation tactic.
By a 61-to-47 final vote, the Knesset approved the bill that states that only the prime minister himself or the cabinet, with a two-thirds majority, can declare the leader unfit. The cabinet vote would then need to be ratified by a super majority in the parliament.
Netanyahu, who is the first sitting Israeli prime minister to appear in court as a defendant, is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies any wrongdoing.