- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2023

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he will delay his judicial overhaul plan to “avoid civil war” amid demonstrations, worker strikes and a rebellion in his own Cabinet against his deeply polarizing proposal.

It was an uncharacteristic tactical retreat for Mr. Netanyahu, who was under pressure from his 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 had a duty to tamp down the growing unrest across Israel and pledged to work with political opponents to find a compromise. He delivered the address 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 after reports that Israeli diplomats and military reservists were joining the opposition-led protests.

Mr. Netanyahu even faced direct calls from the White House to look for a compromise. 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. He added that he will look to “achieve broad consensus” before moving forward with his plan.

President Isaac Herzog, whose compromise proposal was shot down last week, talked with the prime minister and top opposition figures, his office said Monday night. The nonpartisan president reportedly urged the warring factions to start an “immediate negotiation process” to find a middle ground.

The hard-charging Mr. Netanyahu, who began his third stint as Israeli prime minister just three months ago, signaled that he is not abandoning the judicial reforms entirely. He said the branches of the Israeli government have a “lost balance” that must be fixed to ensure the country’s long-term survival.

“We insist on the need to make the necessary corrections to the judicial system,” he said, according to The Times of Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu’s political opponents welcomed the announcement but expressed reservations about the prime minister’s long-term intentions.

“If the legislation really does stop, genuinely and totally, we are ready to start genuine dialogue” with Mr. Netanyahu, said Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, whom Mr. Netanyahu replaced as prime minister four months ago.

“We’ve had bad experiences in the past, and so first, we’ll make sure that there’s no tricks or bluffing here,” Mr. Lapid said, according to Israeli media reports. “If he tries anything, he’ll find hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis who are committed to fighting for our democracy standing opposite him, committed to be the fortification that protects the country and its democracy.”

In one sign that Israelis were stepping back from the brink, the country’s main trade union, known as the Histadrut, said it was ending, for now, a general strike it had called to protest the judicial package. It was reportedly the first time the labor group had called a strike over a political issue.

Mr. Netanyahu also got some political cover from his right flank, as the heads of the Orthodox-based Shas party and the nationalist Jewish Power party said they could accept the legislative pause.

Shikma Schwartzman-Bressler, an Israeli physicist who has emerged as one of the leading voices in the protest movement, said there was no sign that the government was ready to drop what she called the “dictatorship laws.” She told reporters that the popular unrest would not be stilled by Monday’s compromise.

“As long as the legislation continues and is not shelved, we will be on the streets.”

Trying again

Mr. Netanyahu and his allies said they will shelve the reform debate until the next legislative session, which begins April 30. The decision was announced as thousands of Israelis 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. By early Monday, the country was nearing uncharted waters. Israel’s leading doctors union announced that its members would soon strike. In combination with other planned strikes by bankers, transit workers and teachers, Israeli society appeared to be on the verge of a complete shutdown.

The head of the nation’s trade union called off its planned strike immediately after the prime minister’s address, but the scope and ferocity of the backlash underscored how Mr. Netanyahu’s plan touched a nerve across the country.

Among other things, the government’s proposal would give the nation’s governing coalition — currently headed by Mr. Netanyahu — power over judicial appointments. Separately, Mr. Netanyahu’s government also wants laws that would give the Knesset power to overrule Israeli Supreme Court decisions that invalidate Knesset-approved measures and would put new limits on judicial reviews of some laws.

Critics have cast the proposals as the first step toward potential tyranny. They say 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.

The Biden administration, along with other foreign governments, welcomed Monday’s announcement. A day earlier, the White House publicly urged Mr. Netanyahu to seek compromise. A National Security Council spokesperson said “democratic values” must remain at the center of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

“We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in Washington. “We believe that it is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens.”

For Mr. Netanyahu, the mass protests and unfolding political turmoil mark yet another chapter in his drama-filled, multidecade reign atop the Israeli government. He also is facing multiple corruption charges in a judicial proceeding that has dragged on for years.

Some Israeli political figures drew a direct link between the corruption cases and the reform push.

“He wants to get out of this trial,” former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview late last week with Foreign Policy magazine. “Bibi decided to attack the judicial system, to threaten its independence, to destroy it” for his own benefit.

Even during that ongoing legal jeopardy, Mr. Netanyahu mounted a stunning political comeback last summer after Israel’s short-lived anti-Netanyahu governing coalition collapsed.

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 keep Mr. Netanyahu out of power.

Mr. Netanyahu completed his comeback in December’s general election, backed by a majority that included a number of right-wing and ultrareligious parties that had never before held power in Israel. He also led Israel from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to June 2021.

Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing supporters showed no signs of backing down from the fight.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Givr, head of the Jewish Power party, said he would not oppose the delay but remained determined to get the package approved.

“The reform will pass,” he tweeted. “No one will scare us.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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