Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday that he would temporarily freeze his controversial judicial overhaul plans to seek a compromise following unprecedented demonstrations and a general strike that paralysed the Jewish nation.
Netanyahu, 73, said that he ordered “the timeout” on the contentious legislation until after the Knesset (Parliament) recess 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,” the Israeli Prime Minister said.
Drawing analogy from the story of King Solomon from about 3,000 years ago when two women reached out with the claim over a baby boy and the king said to divide the infant in two halves to ascertain the real mother, Netanyahu said that he would not let that happen to Israel in his watch.
“When there’s an option to avoid civil war through dialogue, I take a time-out for dialogue…. out of national responsibility,” Netanyahu said, asserting that most of his coalition members backed the “reforms” and he could have done it if he wished so.
President Isaac Herzog said: “Stopping the legislation is the right thing. This is the time to begin a sincere, serious, and responsible dialogue that will urgently calm the waters and lower the flames.
“I call on everyone to act responsibly. Protests and demonstrations, on whichever side – yes. Violence – absolutely not! If one side wins, the state will lose. We must remain one people and one state – Jewish and democratic,” the president said.
“For the sake of our unity and for the sake of our children’s future, we must start talking, here and now. The president’s residence, the people’s home, is a space for dialogue and the formation of as broad agreements as possible, with the aim of extracting our beloved State of Israel from the deep crisis that we are in. And you gave peace in the Land, and eternal joy to its inhabitants,” Herzog added.
Netanyahu earlier on Monday urged protesters “to behave responsibly and refrain from violence” as Israelis from all over the country started descending into Jerusalem and workers from a range of sectors joined a protest movement against the government’s contentious plan.
Netanyahu’s appeal came hours after Herzog on Monday appealed to him to immediately halt his controversial judicial overhaul, warning that the move has put the country’s security, economy and society under threat.
Netanyahu in his first public statement since widespread demonstrations erupted in reaction to his sacking of the defence minister has urged protesters, from the left and right, “to behave responsibly and refrain from violence.”
As Israelis from all over the country started descending into Jerusalem, in a tweet Netanyahu appeared to address fears of violent clashes this evening between opponents and supporters of the government’s judicial overhaul plan.
“All of us are brothers and sisters,” Netanyahu stressed in his tweet.
President Herzog’s appeal to Netanyahu came after the Prime Minister sacked Defence Minister Yoav Gallant for opposing his judicial reforms, sparking widespread street protests. The president also called on the government to put aside political considerations for the sake of the nation.
“Last night we witnessed very difficult scenes. I appeal to the Prime Minister, members of the Government, and members of the Coalition: there are harsh and painful feelings. The entire nation is rapt with deep worry,” Herzog said.
“Our security, economy, society – all are under threat. The whole people of Israel are looking at you. The whole Jewish People are looking at you. The whole world is looking at you,” the ceremonial president in a statement.
“For the sake of the unity of the People of Israel, for the sake of the necessary responsibility, I call on you to halt the legislative process immediately,” he emphasised.
He urged all the leaders in power to place the country’s citizens above all else.
“I appeal to the leaders of all Knesset factions, Coalition and Opposition alike, to place this country’s citizens above all else and to act with courage and responsibility without further delay. Wake up now! This is not a political moment; this is a moment for leadership and responsibility,” the president asserted.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Israel Sunday night after Netanyahu fired Defence Minister Gallant after he said on Saturday that the judicial overhaul “poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state”.
Irked by the televised speech given by Gallant, the Prime Minister’s Office in a terse statement Sunday evening said “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided, this evening (Sunday, 26 March 2023), to dismiss Defence Minister Yoav Gallant”.
The announcement led to a spontaneous and unprecedented outburst of anger against the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
An unconfirmed Channel 12 report said that 600,000-700,000 Israelis were demonstrating late on Sunday across the country, with protests reported from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south.
Protesters in Tel Aviv blocked a main highway and lit large bonfires, while police scuffled with protesters who gathered outside Netanyahu’s private home in Jerusalem.
The unrest sparked by Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals to shake up the judiciary by severely curbing the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers and the government’s efforts to cement political control over the appointment of judges has met with resistance not only in the streets of the country but also abroad with thousands of Jewish diaspora members protesting during Netanyahu’s visits to Italy, Germany and the UK.
The protests have alarmed business leaders, former security chiefs and drawn concern from Israel’s close allies, including the United States.
The country has also seen economic disruption with talk of a “flight of capital” and hi-tech leaders and firms.
Arnon Bar-David, the head of Israel’s largest labour federation Histadrut, Monday announced a “historic” labour strike in an attempt to “stop the madness” of the government’s controversial judicial overhaul.
“We are all worried about Israel’s fate,” Bar-David says. “Together we say, enough! We have lost our way – this is not about left or right. We can no longer polarise the nation,” the union head was quoted as saying in The Times of Israel newspaper.
Bar-David said the strike will begin as soon as Monday if Prime Minister Netanyahu does not announce a halt to the judicial overhaul.
Israel’s main airport Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Monday announced an immediate halt to all departing flights, minutes after the head of the Histadrut announced the “historic” labour strike.
The Histadrut also instructed all government employees to go on strike, including in all of Israel’s diplomatic missions around the world, the paper reported.
Citing a spokesperson for Israel’s Embassy in the United States, it confirmed that the mission has shut down until further notice.
The National Student and Youth Council, representing the high school and middle school students, declared a nationwide strike to start on Monday morning.
The council has called for “halting the [overhaul] legislation and starting negotiations immediately”.
Two protesters entered the Knesset building and shouted at Education Minister Yoav Kisch that he should resign. They were quickly bundled away by security guards.
As protests intensified accompanied by an unforeseen display of anger, some Likud ministers relented, beginning to show their willingness to compromise.
Culture Minister Micky Zohar, a Netanyahu confidant, said the party would support him if he decided to pause the judicial overhaul.
Protest organisers, mostly common people with no declared political affiliation, continued to push for further demonstrations on Monday.
Political analysts see the development as a “grassroots movement” beyond the control of any political formation. The opposition though has been fully supportive and participating in the protests.
Legislation, which many argue is aimed at establishing executive supremacy over the judiciary, making it subservient to the government, is slated to come for the final readings this week in the Knesset.
Seen at the receiving end of international ire, including a rebuke from US President Joe Biden, Netanyahu has looked weak and perplexed but also hesitant to step back from the proposed “reforms” because of fear of backlash within his ruling Likud party.