Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday in a national address that he was putting a hold to the government’s judicial reform efforts in order to “provide a real opportunity for real dialogue.”
“We are on the path toward a dangerous collision in Israeli society. We are in the midst of a crisis that endangers the basic unity between us. Such a crisis requires us all to act responsibly,” Netanyahu said.
“Yesterday, I read [National Unity Party Chairman] Benny Gantz’s letter in which he undertakes to enter in good faith into negotiations on all issues. I know there are other people who support this approach. To them I extend my hand,” the prime minister said, calling his move “a timeout for dialogue.”
Noting he has received support from his coalition members for the effort, he stressed that his government remains committed to passing judicial reforms. “We insist on the need to bring about the necessary corrections to the judicial system. We are taking an opportunity to achieve them with broad agreement.”
The premier then announced he was halting the reform legislation scheduled to be voted on in the current session, referring to a bill prepared on Sunday in committee for a second and third reading in the Knesset plenum connected to how judges in Israel are selected.
Prior to his address, Netanyahu met with Otzma Yehudit Party chief Itamar Ben-Gvir, who threatened to bolt the coalition if the reform ground to a halt — a threat, if realized, that would almost certainly lead to the government’s collapse.
Ben-Gvir acquiesced to a legislative hold until the Knesset’s summer session. Netanyahu in return agreed to greenlight the formation of a civilian national guard under Ben-Gvir’s authority.
The prime minister’s decision to halt the judicial reform came amid mass civil disobedience and a general strike sparked by his dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Galant, who urged on Sunday that the legislation be postponed for the sake of national unity and military morale.
Gallant said the societal divide reached the Israel Defense Forces as an increasing number of reservists threaten to refuse to report for duty. Members of the IDF General Staff warned last week that if the phenomenon grows, the military’s operational capabilities could be impaired within a month.
Demonstrations took place across the country with protesters in Tel Aviv blocking the Ayalon Highway in both directions before being dispersed by mounted police and water cannons.
Israel’s Histadrut labor federation also announced a general strike on Monday, setting off a cascade of similar announcements, including the grounding of planes at Ben-Gurion Airport.
“I tried to avoid a strike and a shutdown, but it is impossible to stay in the face of this discrimination and polarization,” Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David said at a press conference.
The head of the workers union at Ben-Gurion Airport announced an immediate stop to departures at Israel’s main international gateway, minutes after Bar-David’s statement.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid urged Netanyahu’s coalition to freeze the legislative process and enter into negotiations with the opposition earlier Monday.
“I call on the government to come to its senses and speak to us—let’s go to [the President’s Residence] and have a country based on agreements and mutual respect,” Lapid said.
Netanyahu and his political allies held emergency meetings throughout the night, and President Isaac Herzog also called for an immediate halt to the legislative work on the reform bills.
The U.S. National Security Council weighed in on Sunday, saying Washington was “deeply concerned” by developments in Israel.
The events “further underscore the urgent need for compromise,” said NSC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson.
“As the president recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” she said.
Netanyahu on Thursday night addressed the nation amid mass civil disobedience aimed at thwarting the judicial reforms, saying that he would intervene to make them more balanced but adding that a law changing the makeup of the committee that selects justices would be passed this week as planned.
That changed with his announcement on Monday, in which he said the judicial selection bill, which had been prepared in committee on Sunday for its second and third readings in the Knesset plenum, would also be put on hold. PJC