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Netanyahu announces pause to judicial overhaul plan after days of strikes that threatened to paralyze economy

Netanyahu announces pause to judicial overhaul plan after days of strikes that threatened to paralyze economy
Monday, 27 March, 2023, 23:36

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday he will delay the controversial judicial reforms that have drawn unprecedented opposition in the country, as Israel's largest trade union group launched a strike across a broad swath of sectors.

The strike by the Histadrut umbrella group, which represents more than 700,000 workers in health, transit and banking, among many other fields, threatened to paralyze large parts of Israel's economy, which is already on shaky ground, as it added to the surging protests against the plan. Immediately after Netanyahu's announcement, the head of the country's largest trade union said it would call off the strike.

Even government diplomatic employees at Israel's embassies around the world were told by the Histadrut group to walk off their jobs, and the spokesman for the embassy in Washington D.C. said that facility, at least, would be heeding the call.

Despite the mounting pressure from workers and weeks of growing protests on the streets, Netanyahu's far-right religious-nationalist coalition government survived a no-confidence motion filed by the country's political opposition parties Monday. The motion — called over the judicial reforms — failed by a vote of 59-53, according to the speaker of Israel's legislature, the Knesset.

In remarks Monday, Netanyahu said the delay would allow time to find a compromise with his political opponents.

"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. Striking a more conciliatory tone, he said he was determined to pass a judicial reform but called for "an attempt to achieve broad consensus."

A U.S. State Department spokesman said the announcement is "an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise."

"Compromise is precisely what we have been calling for," State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters Monday. "We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible. We believe that it's the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens. And democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest base of popular support."

Patel declined to say whether the U.S. supports the proposed judicial reforms, but said any "fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of support."

"I'm not going to prescribe any kind of outcome or offer any kind of end scenario that the United States is wishing or hoping for, other than to say that we believe that finding compromises is the best path forward," he said.

On Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration is pleased Netanyahu has postponed his proposed reforms to give "time and space" for compromise.

Earlier Monday, Arnon Bar-David, chairman of Histadrut, announced the strike in a televised address.

"From the moment this press conference ends, the State of Israel stops," he declared. "We have a mission to stop this legislative process and we will do it," he said, vowing to "continue to fight."

The Israel Medical Association quickly announced "a full strike in the health system" that looked set to impact all public hospitals, according to the French news agency AFP. Israel's Airports Authority said departing flights from the country's main international airport, Ben Gurion Airport, had been grounded due to the strike. Tens of thousands are expected to be affected by the flight changes. But planes will for the moment still be able to land at the airport outside Tel Aviv.

The growing resistance to the plan came hours after tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at Netanyahu's decision to fire his defense minister after the minister called for a pause of the overhaul. Chanting "the country is on fire," they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv's main highway, closing it and many others throughout the country for hours while police scuffled with protesters gathered outside Netanyahu's private home in Jerusalem.

The overhaul, driven by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies in Israel's most right-wing government ever has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises. It has sparked a sustained and intensifying protest movement that has spread to nearly all sectors of society, including its military, where reservists have increasingly come out publicly to say they will not serve a country veering toward autocracy.

The crisis has further divided Israel, magnifying longstanding and intractable differences over the country's character that have riven it since its establishment. The protesters say they are fighting for the very soul of the nation, seeing the overhaul as a direct challenge to Israel's democratic ideals. The government has labelled them anarchists out to topple a democratically-elected leadership.

The crisis has also shined a light on Netanyahu himself, Israel's longest-serving leader, and the lengths he may be willing to go to maintain his grip on power, even as he battles the corruption charges. The firing of his defense minister at a time of heightened security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere appeared to be a last straw for many, prompting a new surge of opposition.

"Where are we leading our beloved Israel? To the abyss," Arnon Bar-David, the union group head, said in a rousing speech to applause. "Today we are stopping everyone's descent toward the abyss." The group had sat out the monthslong protests but the defense minister's firing appeared to provide the impetus for the drastic measure.

On Monday, as the embers of the highway bonfires were being cleared, Israel's ceremonial President Isaac Herzog urged Netanyahu to immediately halt the overhaul, calling on the government to put aside political considerations for the sake of the nation.

"The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society — all are under threat," he said. "Wake up now!"

Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former ally turned rival of Netanyahu's, said Monday that Israel was "in a landslide of losing control."

"We haven't been in such a dangerous situation in 50 years," he told Israeli Army Radio.

Universities across the country said they were shutting their doors "until further notice." Israeli media reported that a lawyer representing Netanyahu in his corruption trial threatened to quit if the overhaul was not halted.

The developments were being watched in Washington, which is closely allied with Israel yet has been uneasy with Netanyahu and the far-right elements of his government. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the United States was "deeply concerned" by the developments in Israel, "which further underscore the urgent need for compromise."