Israeli government delays controversial judiciary bill amid mass protests

Jerusalem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday delayed a decision on bitterly contested plans for a judicial overhaul until April amid fears that Israel’s worst national crisis in years could fracture his coalition or escalate into violence.

It was unclear how far the bill’s delay to the next parliamentary session, announced by far-right coalition partner Jewish Power, would satisfy either side or cool a crisis the army chief said made “this hour different to any before”.

Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a highway.Credit:AP

A hard-right coalition partner, Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said he had agreed to the postponement in exchange for a commitment to submit the legislation in the next session of parliament.

Netanyahu said in a national address that he would delay the flagship judicial reform to the next parliamentary session.

“From a will to prevent the rift in the nation, I have decided to delay the second and third reading in order to reach a broad consensus,” he said in a prime-time TV address.

“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue. The crisis obliges everyone to act with responsibility.”

He claimed there was an “extremist minority” trying to divide the country.

“We are at a dangerous crossroads,” he said. “I am not ready to divide the nation into pieces.”

Opponents of the plan to tighten parliament’s control over judicial processes call it a threat to democracy and have organised huge protests against it. Supporters of the legislation, including from the far right, have promised counter-demonstrations.

Flights from Ben Gurion airport – the country’s busiest – were grounded and seaports, banks, hospitals and medical services were set to stop work as the head of the national labour union Histadrut called for a general strike to halt the judicial overhaul.

Army chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi said: “We have not known such days of external threats coalescing, while a storm is brewing at home.”

Netanyahu used Twitter to call on both sides to avoid violence. The prime minister was trying to hold together his nationalist-religious coalition after his decision on Sunday to sack the defence chief, who opposed his plans, prompted mass overnight protests.

The government says the overhaul is needed to rein in activist judges and set a balance between the elected government and the judiciary. Opponents say it would undermine legal checks and balances and threaten Israel’s democracy.

Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have said the overhaul must go ahead, highlighting the tensions within Netanyahu’s coalition. Smotrich urged supporters to protest, saying “we will not let them steal our voice and our country”.

However, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who has been leading the process, said that as a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party he would respect whatever decision the prime minister reached.

“A situation in which everyone does as they wish is liable to bring about the instant fall of the government and collapse of Likud,” he said in a statement.

As parliament passed a confidence vote in the government, tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, many waving the blue and white Israeli flags that have become an emblem of the protests.

A counter-demonstration planned for in front of the Knesset was expected to include Jewish settler groups and football supporter groups such as La Familia, an ultra-nationalist group associated with the Beitar Jerusalem club.

With fears of violence fuelled by social media posts calling for attacks on left-wing Israelis, police numbers were reinforced to handle possible trouble.

Speaking in London, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, a one-time rival of Netanyahu, said the country was fighting for its heart and soul – and whether it would be a dictatorship or a democracy. He predicted that the protesters would prevail.

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak speaking at Chatham House think tank in London on Monday.Credit:Latika Bourke

“It’s a clash, a top-down regime change using the legal tools of democracy facing a counter-revolution from bottom up,” the former Labor party leader said at Chatham House.

“We will win, I am confident of it.”

Night of protests

The judicial legislation has ignited some of the biggest street demonstrations in Israel’s history and drawn a rare intervention by the head of state.

“For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility, I call on you to stop the legislative process immediately,” President Isaac Herzog said on Twitter.

Netanyahu, himself on trial on corruption charges that he denies, has promised to ensure civil rights are protected, but he has not backed down from the central thrust of the reforms.

However, the stark warning from Herzog, whose function is largely ceremonial and supposed to stand above politics, underlined the alarm caused by the proposals, which would tighten political control over judicial appointments and allow parliament to overrule the Supreme Court.

It followed a dramatic night of protests in cities across Israel following Netanyahu’s announcement that he had decided to dismiss Defence Minister Yoav Gallant for opposing the plans.

Gallant urged the government to halt its plans, warning that the deep split it had opened in Israeli society was affecting the military and threatening national security.

His removal fed accusations the government was sacrificing the national interest for its own. The army was already in the process of reinforcing units in the occupied West Bank after a year of violence that has killed more than 250 Palestinian gunmen and civilians and more than 40 Israelis.

No confidence motion defeated

During furious scenes in the Knesset early on Monday, opposition members of parliament attacked Simcha Rothman, the committee chairman who has shepherded the bill, with cries of “Shame! Shame!”

“This is a hostile takeover of the state of Israel. No need for Hamas, no need for Hezbollah,” one lawmaker was heard saying to Rothman as the constitution committee approved a key bill to go forward for ratification.

The shekel, which has seen big swings over recent weeks as the political turbulence has played out, fell 0.7 per cent in early trading before recovering ground to rise around 0.8 per cent as expectations grew the legislation would be halted. Shares in Tel Aviv rose around 2 per cent.

As opposition spread, the head of the Histadrut labour union called for a general strike if the proposals were not halted.

“Bring back the country’s sanity. If you don’t announce in a news conference today that you changed your mind, we will go on strike,” Histadrut chairman, Arnon Bar-David said.

with Latika Bourke

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