Caution in crisis-hit Israel after PM Netanyahu pauses reform

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bowed to pressure, pausing judicial reforms in the face of a nationwide walkout on Monday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TEL AVIV - Caution prevailed in Israel on Tuesday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to pause controversial judicial reforms that sparked a general strike and mass protests, with the crisis far from over.

Mr Netanyahu bowed to pressure in the face of a nationwide walkout on Monday that hit hospitals, flights and more, while tens of thousands of reform opponents rallied outside Parliament in Jerusalem.

“Out of a will to prevent a rupture among our people, I have decided to pause the second and third readings of the Bill” to allow time for dialogue, the Prime Minister said in a broadcast.

The decision to halt the legislative process marked a dramatic U-turn for the Premier, who just a day earlier announced that he was sacking his defence minister who had called for the very same step.

The move was greeted with scepticism in Israel, with the president of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank remarking that it does not amount to a peace deal.

“Rather, it’s a ceasefire, perhaps for regrouping, reorganising, reorienting and then charging – potentially – charging ahead,” Mr Yohanan Plesner told journalists.

Ruse or bluff

Opposition leader Yair Lapid reacted warily, saying on Monday he wanted to be sure “that there is no ruse or bluff”.

President Isaac Herzog said he would host talks on the reforms but, when contacted by Agence France-Presse, a spokesman was unable to provide a schedule for such negotiations.

A joint statement on Tuesday from Mr Lapid’s party and that of Mr Benny Gantz, a former defence minister, said such talks will stop immediately “if the law is put on the Knesset’s agenda”. The Knesset is Israel’s Parliament.

The opposition had previously refused to negotiate over the reforms – which would hand politicians more power over the judiciary – until the legislative process was stopped.

While it has appointed representatives for the highly anticipated negotiations, there has been no such step from Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.

“The goal is to reach an agreement,” Mr Netanyahu said in a statement on Tuesday.

Activists who have led nearly three months of protests against the reform package vowed to continue their rallies.

“This is another attempt of Netanyahu trying to gaslight the Israeli public in order to weaken the protest and then enact a dictatorship,” the Umbrella Movement of demonstrators said.

“We will not stop the protest until the judicial coup is completely stopped,” it added in a statement.

No turning back

The crisis has revealed deep rifts within Mr Netanyahu’s fledgling coalition, an alliance with far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich asserted that “there will be no turning back” on the judicial overhaul, in a tweet on Monday.

His fellow far-right Cabinet member, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, had pressed his supporters to rally in favour of the reforms.

Mr Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party revealed on Monday that the decision to delay the legislation involved an agreement to expand the minister’s portfolio, after he threatened to quit if the overhaul was put on hold.

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Writing in the left-wing daily Haaretz, political correspondent Yossi Verter said the pause was “a victory for the protesters, but the one who really bent Netanyahu and trampled on him is Itamar Ben-Gvir”.

The affair has hit the coalition’s standing among the Israeli public, just three months after it took office.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party has dipped seven points, according to a poll by Israel’s Channel 12, which predicted that the government would lose its majority in the 120-seat Parliament if elections were held.

The fate of ousted defence minister Yoav Gallant was unknown on Tuesday, with speculation in Israeli media that he could be reinstated. Aides said he was continuing to work indefinitely, and when asked if he was being kept on or replaced, spokesmen for Mr Netanyahu and Likud had no immediate comment.

Mr Gallant, who had warned that the crisis threatened national security, on Monday welcomed “the decision to stop the legislative process in order to conduct dialogue”, his team said. AFP

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