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Israel's Netanyahu suspends judicial overhaul amid protests

Israelis woke up to chaos on Monday, as protests over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul shutdown the country
A mounted Israeli policeman stands guard as protesters attend a gathering in Tel Aviv on 27 March 2023 (AFP)

Israelis woke up to chaos on Monday, as protests over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul engulfed the country.

Flights were grounded at Ben Gurion International Airport, while Israeli embassies across the world stopped work in solidarity with demonstrators.

More than 80,000 anti-government protesters gathered outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, according to police sources cited in Haaretz. 

Former defence minister and opposition figure Benny Gantz said: "We don't have another country, we don't have another homeland. We don't have another path, only a Jewish and democratic country.”

Right-wing figures within Netanyahu’s coalition appeared to be gearing up for a protracted fight.

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Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich joined calls earlier on Monday for a counter-demonstration in Jerusalem in support of the judicial reforms.

“Come to Jerusalem,” he said in a statement, according to Times of Israel.

“We must not stop the reform aimed at fixing the justice system and Israeli democracy. We must not surrender to violence, anarchy, military service refusals and wild strikes."

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir also tweeted his support for counter-protests. 

"Today we stop being silent. Today the right wakes up. Spread further," he wrote, accompanied by a poster with details for the rally outside the Knesset on Monday evening. 

Ben-Gvir threatened to resign if the reforms were halted, but continue to support the government from the outside. 

Netanyahu blinks 

By Monday evening, however, Netanyahu blinked. The Israeli leader announced he was delaying his government’s contentious remake of the country’s courts. 

"Out of a sense of national responsibility, out of a will to prevent a rupture among our people, I have decided to pause the second and third readings of the bill,” he told the country’s legislature.

Ben Gvir agreed to the delay in return for allowing the creation of a "national guard" loyal to his ministry.

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Ameer Makhoul, a Palestinian analyst based in the city of Haifa in Israel, told Middle East Eye that Netanyahu's promise to Ben-Gvir of a "national guard" was a bigger win for the far-right than the reforms themselves.

He said the national guard, which Ben-Gvir claims is needed to increase security around Israel and would be loyal to his national security ministry, would have as its "core ideology" hostility to Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The move was welcomed by Netanyahu’s opponents. Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said he was ready for dialogue, but only if the government's announced pause was genuine.

"If the legislation truly and totally stops, we are ready to engage in a real dialogue," he said in a TV address, but wanted to be sure "that there is no ruse or bluff” on Netanyahu’s part. 

US calls for compromise

Israel's main labour union also called off a nationwide strike Monday night, with Arnon Bar-David, chairman of the Histadrut labour federation, praising Netanyahu for the move and offering to help craft a compromise reform. 

The pause comes as many warned Israel was on the brink of civil conflict. Earlier on Monday, Israel’s army chief of staff warned that a “storm is brewing at home” as thousands of military reservists threatened not to serve in the military if the reform passes. 

The White House said it welcomed the delay to move forward with the overhaul and urged the Israeli parties to leave space for compromise.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, however, told reporters that the US remained concerned about the situation in Israel, adding that Biden had been “very forthright” with Netanyahu about his concerns.

Across Israel, the tension between pro- and anti-government protestors was still palpable. MEE observed the two sides confronting each other at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli junction, a main protest hub. 

A few hundred right-wing protesters gathered at the junction to show support for the judicial reforms, carrying signs that said “lefties are traitors”.

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