Caution in Israel in crisis after Netanyahu suspends reform
Cautiousness prevailed in Israel on Tuesday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to suspend controversial judicial reforms that sparked a general strike and mass protests as the crisis was far from over.
Netanyahu bowed to pressure amid a nationwide walkout on Monday that hit hospitals, flights and more, as tens of thousands of reform opponents rallied outside parliament in Jerusalem.
“Out of a desire to avoid a rift among our people, I have decided to suspend 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 turnaround for the prime minister, who a day earlier announced he was sacking his defense minister who had called for the same measure.
The decision was met with skepticism in Israel, with the major daily Yediot Aharonot commenting that the prime minister “knew how to turn a crushing defeat with pretty words into a draw”.
“Israeli society is in turmoil and what he proposes is a procedure,” columnist Nahum Barnea wrote.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid reacted warily, saying he wanted to be sure ‘there is no trickery or bluffing’.
“If the legislation really and completely stops, we are ready to engage in a real dialogue,” he said in a televised address on Monday.
The opposition had previously refused to negotiate on the reforms — that would give politicians more power over the judiciary — until the end of the legislative process.
Activists who have led nearly three months of protests against the reform package have vowed to continue their rallies.
“This is yet another attempt by Netanyahu to try to enlighten the Israeli public in order to weaken the protest and then establish a dictatorship,” the Umbrella Movement said.
“We will not stop the protest until the judicial coup is completely stopped,” he added in a statement.
‘No turning back’
President Isaac Herzog called for “sincere, serious and responsible dialogue”. He said on Monday he would hold reform talks, but when contacted by AFP, a spokesman was unable to provide a timetable for those talks.
The crisis has exposed deep divisions within Netanyahu’s fledgling coalition, an alliance with far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said “there will be no turning back” on the judicial overhaul, in a tweet on Monday.
Another far-right cabinet member, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, had urged his supporters to rally in favor of reforms.
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.
Writing in the left-leaning Haaretz daily, political correspondent Yossi Verter said the break was “a victory for the protesters, but the one who really bent Netanyahu and trampled on him is Itamar Ben-Gvir.”
“Netanyahu came out of this story like a squeezed orange,” Verter wrote.
The case hit the coalition’s reputation in the Israeli public, just three months after it took office.
Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party lost seven points, according to a Israel Channel 12 poll that predicted the government would lose its majority in the 120-seat parliament if elections were held.
The fate of ousted Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was unknown on Tuesday with speculation in Israeli media that he could be reinstated.
Gallant, who had warned of a national security threat amid the crisis, on Monday welcomed “the decision to halt the legislative process in order to conduct dialogue,” his team said.