Sunday, February 25, 2024

Israeli PM Netanyahu says he is ‘not ready to divide the nation in pieces’ after mass protests over judicial overhaul – as it happened

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Netanyahu announces delay in judicial overhaul

Here is what everyone has been waiting for:

Netanyahu says he will delay the judicial overhaul bill until the next parliament session in a few weeks.

“I am taking time out for dialogue,” he says.

Key events

Recap of events

  • Israel’s embattled leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has announced he is pausing a controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary to give time for “dialogue” following the biggest domestic protest movement in Israeli history. The prime minister had been under pressure for weeks from far-right figures in his governing coalition to push ahead with the bill, while critics say it will create a system where governments can rule unchallenged.

  • The decision to delay only postpones the issue for several weeks, and it is not clear if the protests will end.

  • In exchange for agreeing to the delay, the far-right Jewish Power said the prime minister had offered the formation of a civil “national guard”, causing concern about an armed group under the control of far-right politician, Itamar Ben Gvir.

  • The crisis reached a climax on Sunday evening after Netanyahu sacked his defence minister for opposing the overhaul, sparking mass protests across the country overnight. In support of the protests, Israel’s largest trade union group launched a general strike this morning, with hundreds of thousands of people working in banks, transportation and health being told not to turn up for work. Following Netanyahu’s evening address, the union called off the strike. Major seaports had also halted work, while Israel’s main airport saw departures stop on Monday.

  • Israel’s embassies, including the one in Washington, reopened after Netanyahu decided to delay his judicial overhaul. The “strike is over and the embassy is reopened,” said Elad Strohmayer, spokesperson for the embassy in Washington DC.

  • The issue of the occupation of the Palestinian territories has not played a large part in the protests despite it being the most pressing international issue.

Explainer: What happens next?

Bethan McKernan and Quique Kierzenbaum in Jerusalem

After three months of unrelenting public pressure, the biggest protest movement in Israeli history achieved its goal: the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, finally announced a halt to his far-right government’s judicial overhaul weakening the supreme court in a televised address on Monday evening.

Proponents say the changes are needed to curb the powers of the supreme court, which plays an outsized checks-and-balances role in a country with no formal constitution and only one legislative chamber.

It is not lost on anyone that the proposals could help Netanyahu in his corruption trial, in which he denies all charges. Critics of the move say it will undermine democratic norms and the rule of law, allowing the far-right elements of Netanyahu’s coalition to press ahead with draconian measures limiting the rights of minorities, women and LGBTQ+ people.

Even as Israel grappled with nationwide upheaval, a parliamentary committee continued to push elements of the legislation forward to votes on the Knesset floor, and the far-right architects of the overhaul reiterated their determination to pass the most important elements before the Knesset breaks up for the Passover holiday on 2 April.

After a day of fractious negotiations with the prime minister’s office, the far-right coalition party Jewish Power issued a statement on Monday evening saying it had agreed to push the legislation to the next parliamentary session.

For both sides, the fight is far from over. The compromise raises the spectre of new elections if the government collapses through infighting. Many Israelis would dread that prospect: voters have been evenly split over whether Netanyahu is fit to lead the country in five polls since 2019.

After a short stint in opposition, the prime minister returned to office in December for a record-breaking sixth term after convincing three small far-right groups to run on one slate so they could clear the Knesset threshold. The move worked, giving Netanyahu’s bloc a majority of four in the 120-seat Knesset, although he won just 49.57% of the vote.

Much of the Israeli public, jaded by the endless electoral cycle, did not see the threat from the far right coming. In office, Netanyahu’s partners have proved unpalatable to the majority of the country.

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Benjamin Netanyahu says he will delay judicial overhaul after mass protests in Israel – video

Benjamin Netanyahu says he will delay judicial overhaul after mass protests in Israel – video

Israel’s embassies, including the one in Washington, reopened after Netanyahu decided to delay his judicial overhaul.

The “strike is over and the embassy is reopened,” said Elad Strohmayer, spokesperson for the embassy in Washington DC.

The Embassy of Israel in the United States was closed following nationwide anti-government protests have been sparked by Israeli government plans to reform the justice system. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

The Times of Israel is reporting that Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to make a virtual appearance at the US State Department’s Democracy Summit later this week.

About 120 countries have been invited to the three-day conference, including Israel. White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the department had no comment on whether the US would rescind its offer to Netanyahu based on the recent protests. Countries like Turkey and Hungary, seen as being led by conservative, anti-democracy leaders, were not invited.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to make a virtual appearance at the US State Department’s Democracy Summit later this week, two US officials tell The Times of Israel. (1/4)

— Jacob Magid (@JacobMagid) March 27, 2023

A brief tweet from Yoav Gallant, Netanyahu’s former senior defense minister, said that he welcomes Netanyahu’s announcement “to stop the legislation in favor of dialogue”.

מברך על ההחלטה לעצור את החקיקה לטובת הידברות.

— יואב גלנט (@yoavgallant) March 27, 2023

Gallant had called on Netanyahu to drop the judiciary reform proposals, leading the prime minister to fire Gallant. Protestors quickly took to the street after Gallant’s firing.

In a statement, Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s opposition party, said the party is willing to start talks with Netanyahu’s party again “if the legislation really does stop, genuinely and totally”.

“The state of Israel is injured and hurting. We don’t need to put a plaster over the injuries but to treat them properly,” Lapid said. “We’ve got bad experience from the past and so first, we’ll make sure there’s no tricks or bluffing here. We heard with concern yesterday the reports that Netanyahu told the people close to him that he isn’t really stopping, just trying to calm the situation.”

“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,” he said.

Thread – Statement by Leader of the Opposition Yair Lapid

“I heard Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement. If the legislation really does stop, genuinely and totally, we are ready to start genuine dialogue at the President’s Residence.”

— Yair Zivan (@YairZivan) March 27, 2023

The White House has welcomed Netanyahu’s announcement, calling the delay “an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a news briefing.

We welcome this announcement as an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise. A compromise is precisely what we have been calling for.
And we continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible. We believe that it is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens.
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.

Hello, this is Lauren Aratani in New York taking over for Oliver Holmes

UK foreign secretary James Cleverly just said in a statement that he welcomes the news from Israel on the decision to pause judiciary reform legislation, according to Reuters.

“The UK welcomes the decision today by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pause legislation to reform Israel’s judiciary,” the statement reads. “It is vital that the shared democratic values that underpin that (UK-Israel) relationship are upheld, and a robust system of checks and balances are preserved.”

Some analysis from Bethan McKernan in Jerusalem on the deal between Netanyahu and Ben Gvir:

Israel’s extremist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, backtracked on threats to resign ahead of an announcement from the prime minister, Netanyahu, that he was pausing legislation aimed at curbing the power of the country’s supreme court. In exchange, a statement from his Jewish Power party said that Netanyahu had agreed on the formation of a civil “national guard”, to be placed under his control.

On the surface, this deal sounds – to put it mildly – strange. Ben-Gvir is already in charge of Israel’s police. But Ben-Gvir has long campaigned for more gun permits for Israelis, and the threat of Palestinian attacks against Israelis is his party’s raison d’etre.

Some Israeli commentators said that the agreement amounts to giving Ben-Gvir a private militia. But in a country where reservist military service is already commonplace, it is unclear where the personnel for a national guard will come from – not to mention the funding. Also on Monday, the Knesset passed a state budget for 2023-2024, which does not factor in this latest development.

Netanyahu appears to be playing for time after nearly 24 hours of fractious negotiations with his far-right partners. The issue will not be revisited for another month, and that’s a very long time in Israeli politics.

Summary of the day so far

It has been a busy 24 hours in Israel. Here are the major points:

  • Israel’s embattled leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has announced he is pausing a controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary to give time for “dialogue” following the biggest domestic protest movement in Israeli history.

  • The prime minister had been under pressure for weeks from far-right figures in his governing coalition to push ahead with the bill, while critics say it will create a system where governments can rule unchallenged.

  • The decision to delay only postpones the issue for several weeks, and it is not clear if the protests will end.

  • In exchange for agreeing to the delay, the far-right Jewish Power said the prime minister had offered the formation of a civil “national guard”, causing concern about an armed group under the control of far-right politician, Itamar Ben Gvir.

  • The crisis reached a climax on Sunday evening after Netanyahu sacked his defence minister for opposing the overhaul, sparking mass protests across the country overnight.

  • In support of the protests, Israel’s largest trade union group launched a general strike this morning, with hundreds of thousands of people working in banks, transportation and health being told not to turn up for work.

  • Following Netanyahu’s evening address, the union called off the strike.

  • Major seaports had also halted work, while Israel’s main airport saw departures stop on Monday.

  • The Israeli foreign ministry union called for embassy staff worldwide to strike, although it was not clear how many followed the request.

  • Tens of thousands of Israelis made their way to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, to protest the bill while thousands more attended a “pro-overhaul” rally nearby.

  • The issue of the occupation of the Palestinian territories has not played a large part in the protests despite it being the most pressing international issue.

Israeli media is reporting that protests will continue, despite Netanyahu’s announcement.

A reminder: Netanyahu has announced a pause for several weeks, rather than agreeing to protest demands to abandon the bill completely.

Israel’s labour union calls off strike after Netanyahu pauses bill

The prime minister’s decision to delay – but not abandon – his controversial judiciary bill appears to have had the intended effect on the country’s main labour union.

The group has called off its nationwide strike.

“From a will to prevent the rift in the nation, I have decided to delay the second and third reading in order to reach a broad consensus,” Netanyahu said in a prime-time televised address.

The prime minister says “most” of his coalition allies supported the move.

Netanyahu announces delay in judicial overhaul

Here is what everyone has been waiting for:

Netanyahu says he will delay the judicial overhaul bill until the next parliament session in a few weeks.

“I am taking time out for dialogue,” he says.

Netanyahu starts speech

The prime minister says he is “not ready to divide the nation in pieces”, and he will “turn over every stone to find a solution”.

He decries what he says is an “extremist minority ready to divide our nations”.

The US president, Joe Biden, has shared his concerns about the situation in Israel directly with Netanyahu, the White House has said.

White House spokesman John Kirby said Biden has been “very forthright” with Netanyahu.

Washington has watched with concern as the political crisis has unfolded.

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