Netanyahu Delays Bid to Overhaul Israel’s Judiciary as Protests Rage

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that he was delaying his government’s campaign to exert greater control over the judiciary, backing off in the face of furious public protest that has plunged Israel into one of the deepest crises of its history.

In recent weeks, Mr. Netanyahu had been unyielding in his pursuit of the court overhaul, even as protests drawing hundreds of thousands have erupted across the county. On Sunday, he fired his defense minister for even suggesting that the plan be delayed.

But on Monday, with civil unrest at new heights, with work stoppages hitting hospitals, airports and schools, and with dissent growing in the military, he relented — if only for the moment.

“When there is a possibility of preventing a civil war through dialogue, I, as the prime minister, take a time out for dialogue,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a speech announcing the postponement.

The concession came as Itamar Ben-Gvir, the head of a powerful far-right political party in Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, said he was open to delaying a parliamentary vote on overhauling the judiciary, giving Mr. Netanyahu some breathing room as protests ground the country to a halt.

Itamar Ben-Gvir greeting supporters of the judicial overhaul on Monday in Jerusalem.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

By backing down, Mr. Netanyahu may be able to restore calm to the streets, but he now risks destabilizing the political coalition that he labored to assemble, finally forming a government in December. Many of his hard-right government partners had dug in their heels at any suggestion of a delayed vote.

Even as he relented on the timing, Mr. Ben-Gvir made it clear that he was not giving it up. “The reform will pass,” he declared, vowing that “no one will scare us.”

And it was unclear if Mr. Netanyahu’s announcement would, in fact, appease opponents of the court plan.

The Israeli opposition parties appeared to be split over his offer of dialogue. While Yair Lapid, a former prime minister and the centrist leader of the opposition, welcomed it, if warily, Merav Michaeli, the head of the center-left Labor party, rejected it.

The Judicial Crisis in Israel

  • Complicated Ties: As Israel’s government pushes ahead with its plan to overhaul the judiciary, the resulting crisis has shown the limits of President Biden’s influence on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • Military Concerns: The proposed overhaul has prompted many Israeli reservists to avoid volunteer duty. Military leaders have privately warned that this might require scaling back operations.
  • Fueling the Overhaul: The Kohelet Policy Forum has been a major force behind the judicial overhaul, but who’s behind the once-obscure think tank? Two guys from Queens.
  • A Grass-Roots Movement: The protests across Israel against the government’s plan, both large and small, often spread by word of mouth and WhatsApp messaging groups.

“How many more times can we fall into the trap of cooperating with Netanyahu?” Ms. Michaeli said, accusing him of “buying time at the expense of our democracy.”

The protesters, too, seemed unpersuaded.

“So long as the legislation continues and has not been shelved, we will be in the streets,” an informal protest body known simply as “the struggle HQ” said in a statement. “This is another attempt to weaken the protest.”

Still, after the Netanyahu announcement, the head of Israel’s main labor union called off a general strike planned for Tuesday.

Protesters trying to block the main highway in Tel Aviv were dispersed by police officers on Monday.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

The tensions began after the Netanyahu government moved to give itself more control over the appointment of judges — including those who sit on the Supreme Court. It also moved to strip much of that court’s power to review parliamentary decisions.

Both sides have tried to wrap themselves in the mantle of democracy.

The government’s supporters contend that Israel cannot be a true democracy without giving elected lawmakers primacy over unelected judges. Critics argue that the removal of judicial oversight of Parliament would pave the way for authoritarian rule — at a time when Israel has the furthest-right and most religiously conservative government of its history.

Some also expressed fears that Mr. Netanyahu might have another agenda.

The prime minister is currently standing trial on charges of corruption, and opponents worry that the court overhaul might make it easier for him to push through legislation that could allow him to avoid any punishment. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly denied that claim, but adding to the suspicions, Parliament voted last week to make it more difficult to declare prime ministers incapacitated and remove them from office.

Demonstrators opposing the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on Monday.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

On Monday, in agreeing to hold off on any vote on the judiciary measure until after Parliament returns from an April recess, Mr. Netanyahu struck a tone of diplomacy.

“I am giving a real chance for a real conversation,” he said. “We insist on the need to bring about the necessary corrections in the legal system, and we will allow for an opportunity to achieve them with a broad consensus. That’s the worthiest goal there is.”

It appeared more a moment of calculation than conciliation, however, and the prime minister made clear his scorn for the protesters. He likened some opponents of his plan to the woman in the biblical story of King Solomon who would have allowed a disputed baby to be cut in two.

The battle over the courts has become a proxy for much deeper social disagreements within Israeli society related to the relationship between secular and religious Jews and the future of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Supporters of the judicial overhaul also took to the streets in Tel Aviv on Monday.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Orthodox Jews and settlers in the occupied West Bank say the court has historically acted against their interests and that it has for too long been dominated by secular judges. Jews of Middle Eastern descent also feel underrepresented on the court, which has mostly been staffed by judges from European backgrounds.

Others say the court plays an important role as a check on Parliament and the executive arm of government.

In urging this past weekend that the government delay a vote, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant noted that many military reservists had pledged to stand down from duty to protest the court overhaul.

“The rift within our society is widening and penetrating the Israel Defense Forces,” he said in a televised speech on Saturday. He added: “This is a clear and immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state. I shall not be a party to this.”

The next day, Mr. Gallant was out of a job — and the streets of Israel were in chaos.

Government backers turned out to demonstrate in Jerusalem on Monday.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

His firing heightened friction between Mr. Netanyahu and the Biden administration, which has become increasingly vocal about the move to weaken Israeli courts. The U.S. National Security Council issued a statement calling for compromise, expressing deep concern and stressing that “democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

On Monday, the White House welcomed word of the postponed vote.

“Compromise is precisely what we have been calling for, and we continue to strongly urge leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary. “We believe that it is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens,” she told reporters in a White House news briefing.

On Monday, the president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, whose position is largely ceremonial, welcomed the postponement. “I call on everyone to act responsibly,” he said on Twitter. “Protests and demonstrations, on whichever side — yes. Violence — absolutely not! If one side wins, the state will lose. We must remain one people and one state — Jewish and democratic.”

Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Eric Nagourney from New York. Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel; Hiba Yazbek from Jerusalem; and Carol Sutherland from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.

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