(JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would postpone a vote on far-reaching reforms to the judiciary and engage in dialogue with the opposition, yielding to calls from hundreds of thousands of protesters as well as senior members of his own party and international leaders.
In his televised address, Netanyahu cited fears of civil war, which Israeli President Isaac Herzog had also warned of weeks ago.
“I am not ready to tear the people into shreds,” Netanyahu said Monday in remarks broadcast just past 8 p.m. Israel time. “We are not facing enemies but brothers. I am saying now and here, there must not be a civil war.”
He added, “I have decided to delay the second and third readings of the legislation until the Knesset reconvenes” roughly a month from now, at the end of April, though it could begin later. He said the break — which includes the Jewish and Israeli holidays of Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day — would be devoted to dialogue.
Netanyahu’s announcement marks a significant victory for opponents of the judicial reform, and heralds a new stage in the months-long debate over the legislation which, as written, would sap the Supreme Court of much of its power and independence. As it stands, the legislation substantially increases government control over Supreme Court appointments and essentially removes the court’s ability to review laws. That version of the legislation will almost certainly not pass now, and leaders of a strike called on Monday to protest the reforms called it off immediately after Netanyahu’s speech.
The legislation has been controversial ever since it was unveiled near the beginning of the year, just weeks after Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition took office. For months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to oppose the proposals, and their calls were joined by a chorus of public figures, in Israel and abroad, who warned that the overhaul would remove a key component of Israel’s democratic system. Reservists in the Israel Defense Forces vowed to absent themselves from duty in protest.
Netanyahu and his allies said that the reform reflected the will of Israel’s right-wing majority. But facing the threats from reservists, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced on television Saturday night that he supported a pause in the legislation, as well as dialogue toward a compromise. He said internal conflict in the IDF surrounding the overhaul put Israel’s security at risk.
One day later, on Sunday night, Netanyahu fired Gallant — a decision that sparked massive, spontaneous protests across the country, starting late Sunday night and lasting until Monday’s early hours, and then reconvening Monday afternoon.
In his speech on Monday, Netanyahu railed against reservists refusing to report for duty, which he called a “terrible crime.”
“The state of Israel cannot exist without the IDF, and the IDF cannot exist with refusal,” he said. “Refusal from one side will lead to refusal from the other side. Refusal is the end of our country. So I demand — demand — of the commanders of the security forces, and the commanders of the IDF, to forcefully oppose the phenomenon of refusal.”
Opposition leaders, including Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, accepted Netanyahu’s call for dialogue. Lapid said the dialogue should lead to the writing of a constitution for Israel, which the country currently lacks, under the aegis of President Isaac Herzog. For weeks, Herzog has been calling for a pause in the legislative process and had previously unveiled a compromise on the judicial reform that Netanyahu’s coalition rejected. The Biden administration had also urged Netanyahu to find a compromise, including in a conversation last week between President Joe Biden and Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s announcement was endorsed by several large Jewish organizations.
“We welcome the Israeli government’s suspension of legislative consideration of judicial reform measures,” read a joint statement by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Federations of North America and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The last three months have been painful to watch and yet a textbook case of democracy in action. We respect the political leaders, business executives, community activists, cultural figures, and ordinary Israelis who took to the streets, exercising their love of country, and their passion for democracy.”
Bitter feelings were still evident in the prime minister’s speech: Netanyahu said pro-government protesters who turned out on Monday evening were “spontaneous,” “not paid for, not spurred by the media.” Netanyahu has at times depicted the massive protests as a conspiracy.
Gantz, in accepting the offer, said, “The prime minister is principally responsible for tearing the country apart.” He also called on Netanyahu to reinstall Gallant. Netanyahu did not mention Gallant in his address.
Netanyahu said his decision to pause the legislative process was backed by a majority of his governing coalition. In December, Netanyahu allied with the far-right Religious Zionist bloc as part of his governing coalition, and one of the bloc’s leaders, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, was pressing for quick passage of the reforms up until Netanyahu’s announcement.
Another leader of the far-right bloc, Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, circulated an agreement signed by himself and Netanyahu to establish a “National Guard” alongside the decision to pause the court reform. It is not clear how such an entity would function alongside Israel’s already massive security infrastructure, but a report on Kann, Israel’s public broadcaster, said the new initiative would receive a budget of $2.5 billion and operate under Ben-Gvir’s authority. Ben-Gvir has called for the loosening of open-fire rules in clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians. Netanyahu likewise did not mention the agreement with Ben-Gvir in his speech.
In a tweet posted shortly before Netanyahu’s speech, Ben-Gvir sounded defiant.
“The reform will pass. The national guard will be established. The budget I demanded for the Ministry of National Security will pass in its entirety,” he wrote. “No one will frighten us. No one will be able to change the decision of the people.”
Then, mimicking the central chant of the anti-government protesters, he added: “Repeat after me: De-mo-cra-cy!”