Israeli government delays disputed judiciary bill amid mass protests

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday delayed a decision on bitterly contested plans for a judicial overhaul until next month 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, will satisfy either side or cool a crisis the army chief said on Monday made “this hour different to any before”.

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.

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

Flights from Ben Gurion airport were grounded and seaports, banks, hospitals and medical services were also set to stop work as the head of the national labour union Histadrut called for a general strike to stop the judicial overhaul going ahead.

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

Netanyahu, who called on Twitter for both sides to avoid violence, was trying to hold together his nationalist-religious coalition after his decision on Sunday to sack the defense chief for opposing his plans prompted mass overnight protests.

He is due to make a public statement at 1705 GMT.

While the government says the overhaul is needed to rein in activist judges and set a proper balance between the elected government and the judiciary, opponents see it as an undermining of legal checks and balances and a threat to Israel’s democracy.

Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have said the overhaul must ahead, highlighting the tensions within Netanyahu’s coalition. Smotrich urged supporters to join a 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 been become an emblem of the protests.

A counter-demonstration planned later 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.

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 which he denies, has promised to ensure civil rights are protected but has not backed down from the central thrust of the reforms.

However the stark warning by 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 Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for opposing the plans.

Gallant urged the government to halt its plans, warning that the deep split it had opened up 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, with the army 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 percent in early trading before recovering ground to rise around 0.8 percent as expectations grew the legislation would be halted. Shares in Tel Aviv rose around 2 percent.

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.

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