Unrest in Israel temporarily derails PM Netanyahu's judicial reforms. Here's what we know
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday temporarily suspended his controversial judicial reform legislation that has led to mass protests and caused anger across most parts of society, including the military.
The plan has been delayed until after the Knesset – Israel's parliament – recesses. Lawmakers will be back for their next parliamentary session at the end of April.
"When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue," Netanyahu said in a nationally televised address. He struck a conciliatory tone but said he was determined to proceed with the judicial system changes.
The overhaul is being driven by Netanyahu and his allies in Israel’s most right-wing government ever. It has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises and led to an intensifying protest movement. Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, insists the reforms will prevent overreach from Israel's courts.
But opponents say the move is at least partly aimed at helping Netanyahu with his legal troubles and is a threat to Israel’s democratic ideals. There are also fears over what the new laws could mean for Netanyahu's hardline policy toward Palestinians. One of his government ministers who supports the overhaul recently denied the existence of the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination.
Strikes, highway bonfires and grounded airplanes
Opposition to Netanyahu’s plan threatened to upend Israel's economy as labor unions launched a nationwide strike, malls and ports were closed and airlines were grounded.
The chaos came after protesters poured into the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in response to Netanyahu's abrupt ousting of his defense minister, who had opposed the judiciary overhaul. On Sunday, the protests included highway bonfires and knocking down police barricades outside Netanyahu's home in Jerusalem.
Over the weekend, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement that the judiciary plan posed a security threat to Israel, which prompted his firing. Military reservists have refused to sign up for duty because of the plan.
Gallant had been the first senior member of Netanyahu's political party to speak out against the plan. Still, many in the party were urging the prime minister to press ahead.
Biden administration warns of need to preserve 'democratic values'
The crisis has concerned officials in the U.S., traditionally Israel's closest ally.
"Democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship," National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement Sunday. Watson said there was "urgent need for compromise."
On Monday, the White House welcomed Netanyahu's decision to pause the judicial changes.
"We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. "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."
Jean-Pierre said that when President Joe Biden and Netanyahu spoke by phone earlier this month, the two leaders "had a very honest conversation" in which Biden emphasized that democratic values have always been a "hallmark" of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
"So U.S. support for Israeli security and democracy remains ironclad," Jean-Pierre said. "That is continuing to be the case. But we will always have those honest and frank conversations with our partners, with our friends, as well."
Israel's President Isaac Herzog: 'The entire nation is rapt with deep worry.'
The growing resistance to Netanyahu's judicial plan saw Israel's leader dismiss his defense minister over the weekend after Yoav Galant called for the reforms to be paused. On Monday, Isaac Herzog, Israel's president, who plays a largely ceremonial role in government, also urged Netanyahu to quickly halt the overhaul.
"The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society – all are under threat," Herzog said in a statement. "Wake up now!"
Israel's largest trade union announced a strike Monday that led to a suspension of some air travel at the country's main airport in Tel Aviv. Other local government offices that oversee preschools and essential services also said they would walk out. Some of the strikes were immediately called off after Netanyahu's announcement. But it remained unclear what his intervention will mean for the large-scale protests. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have spent almost three months rallying in cities across Israel.
"The reform(s) will pass," Itamar Ben Gvir wrote on Twitter after it became apparent that Netanyahu was considering a temporary halt to the proposed legislation. Ben Gvir is a far-right politician who is national security minister in Netanyahu's government.
"No one will scare us," he said.
The scale of the dissent in Israel has been rare. It has included military reservists, navy veterans, high-tech businesspeople and former officials. Netanyahu faced sizable protests from Israelis living overseas during recent trips to London and Paris.
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Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving prime minister, though he briefly lost the role in 2021 before returning to power for a sixth term late last year. His fragile coalition government relies on support from ultra-nationalist and religious parties.
The corruption charges against him date back to at least 2016, when investigators accused him of doing official favors for wealthy businessmen in exchange for gifts such as cigars, champagne and luxury clothes. He is also accused of seeking favorable coverage of his government from Israeli news outlets. He denies the allegations.
Dig deeper: Protesters flood the streets of Israel after Netanyahu fires minister opposed to controversial reforms
Contributing: Jotam Confino in Tel Aviv
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After riots in Israel, PM Netanyahu pauses judiciary reforms