Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday he will delay his judicial overhaul plan in a bid to “avoid civil war” amid historic demonstrations, workers’ strikes and other protests against his deeply polarizing proposal.
It was an uncharacteristic tactical retreat for Mr. Netanyahu, who was under pressure from his new right-wing governing coalition to push ahead with the plan despite a fierce domestic and international backlash.
In a nationally televised address, Mr. Netanyahu said he has a duty to tamp down the growing unrest across Israel and pledged to work with political opponents to find compromise. His comments came after two days of widespread protests and near-paralysis of the Israeli economy, with many flights grounded, shopping centers shuttered and looming strikes in the health care, banking and other key sectors. Mr. Netanyahu’s defense minister, who expressed doubts about the government’s previous intention to push ahead with the legislation, was fired.
The embattled Israeli leader appeared to be left with little choice but to back down, at least temporarily.
“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue,” Mr. Netanyahu said, adding that he will look to “achieve broad consensus” before moving forward with his plan.
Netanyahu allies signaled earlier Monday that the prime minister would delay his proposal as tens of thousands of Israelies gathered outside the Knesset, the nation’s parliament, to protest. Some demonstrators reportedly lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, closing down traffic in the area.
The tense situation reached a fever pitch late Sunday after Mr. Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who urged a pause in the push for the judicial overhaul.
Among other things, the government’s proposal plan would give the nation’s governing coalition — currently headed by Mr. Netanyahu — power over judicial appointments. Separately, Mr. Netanyahu’s government also wants to pass laws that would give the Knesset power to overrule Israeli Supreme Court decisions that invalidate Knesset-approved measures and put new limits on judicial reviews of some laws.
Critics have cast the proposals as the first step toward potential tyranny, saying the Supreme Court has historically served as a backstop to protect civil rights and restrain government overreach.
“This is the last chance to stop this move into a dictatorship,” Matityahu Sperber, 68, told the Associated Press at the Knesset protests.
Over the weekend, the White House pressured Mr. Netanyahu to seek a compromise and defuse the increasingly volatile situation.
“We are deeply concerned by today’s developments out of Israel, which further underscore the urgent need for compromise,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement Sunday. “Democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
For Mr. Netanyahu, the mass protests and unfolding political turmoil mark yet another chapter in his drama-filled, multi-decade reign atop the Israeli government.
Last summer, Israel’s anti-Netanyahu governing coalition collapsed, paving the way for his return. Analysts said at the time that it appeared Mr. Netanyahu worked feverishly behind the scenes to whip up opposition to that eight-party governing alliance, which was united almost entirely by its desire to push Mr. Netanyahu out of power.
Mr. Netanyahu returned to power in December’s general election, backed by a majority that included a number of right-wing and ultra-religious parties that had never before held power in Israel. He previously led Israel from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to June 2021.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.
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