JERUSALEM (AP) — Bending to a wave of mass protests, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed his contentious judicial overhaul plan Monday and said he wanted "to avoid civil war” by making time to seek a compromise with political opponents.
The announcement appeared to calm some of the tensions that have fueled three tumultuous months of unrest. But it failed to address the underlying issues that have polarized the nation, and the anti-government protest movement vowed to intensify its efforts.
In his prime-time address, Netanyahu, who had previously rejected calls to delay the legislation, took a more conciliatory tone than in recent speeches. He acknowledged the deep divisions in the country and said he was hitting the pause button “to prevent a rift in the nation.”
“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue,” he said. He vowed to reach a “broad consensus” during the summer session of parliament, which begins on April 30.
He spoke after tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside parliament, and the country’s largest labor union launched a nationwide strike in a dramatic escalation of the mass protest movement against his plan.
Netanyahu and his religious and ultranationalist allies presented the overhaul in January just days after forming their government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history.
The proposal has plunged Israel into its worst domestic crisis in decades. Business leaders, top economists and former security chiefs have all come out against the plan, saying it is pushing the country toward an autocracy. Fighter pilots and military reservists have threatened not to report for duty, and the country’s currency, the shekel, has tumbled in value.
The plan would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his allies the final say in appointing the nation’s judges. It would also give parliament, which is controlled by his allies, authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit the court’s ability to review laws.
Netanyahu has argued that the overhaul is needed to rein in a liberal and overly interventionist court of unelected judges. But his opponents say the package would damage the country’s system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu’s allies. They also say that he has a conflict of interest as a criminal defendant.
Tens of thousands of people, largely secular, middle-class Israelis, have regularly joined mass protests against the plan.
Those demonstrations ramped up Sunday night after Netanyahu abruptly fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had urged the prime minister to put his plan on hold, citing concerns about damage to the Israeli military.
The firing sparked a spontaneous outburst of anger, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in just one hour.
Chanting “the country is on fire,” they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, closing the thoroughfare and many others throughout the country for hours.
Demonstrators continued Monday outside the Knesset, or parliament, turning the streets surrounding the building and the Supreme Court into a roiling sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags dotted with rainbow Pride banners.
“This is the last chance to stop this move into a dictatorship,” said Matityahu Sperber, 68, who joined a stream of people headed to the protest outside the Knesset. “I’m here for the fight to the end.”
Israel’s main trade union, the histadrut, declared a general strike in what it said was the first time it has carried out such an action over a political issue.
The chaos shut down much of the country and threatened to paralyze the economy. Departing flights from the main international airport were grounded, stranding tens of thousands of travelers.
Large mall chains and universities closed their doors, and the union called for its 800,000 members to stop work in health care, transit, banking and other fields.
Diplomats walked off the job at foreign missions, and local governments were expected to close preschools and cut other services. The main doctors union announced that its members would also strike.
In a sign of easing tensions, the union said late Monday that it was halting the strike in response to Netanyahu’s delay.
The announcement appeared to buy the embattled Netanyahu several weeks of quiet. But it was far from clear whether the disputes could be resolved.
The country’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, said pausing the legislative blitz was “the right thing.”
“This is the time for frank, serious and responsible discussion that will lead urgently to calming spirits and lowering the flames,” he said.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said he was willing to hold a “genuine dialogue” under Herzog’s sponsorship.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist who has pushed for quick passage of the package, said he would respect the delay but showed few signs of compromise.
“The reform will pass,” he tweeted. “No one will scare us.”
The first of a series of laws — giving the coalition control over judicial appointments — had been scheduled to pass this week.
Before Netanyahu’s speech, some 20,000 right-wing Israelis attended a counter demonstration in support of the prime minister. That demonstration also took place near parliament and passed without violence.
“They won’t steal the election from us,” read a flyer for event, organized by Religious Zionist party. Netanyahu said he was “moved” by the show of support.
Shikma Bressler, one of the leaders of the anti-government protest movement, said the campaign would continue until the legislation is canceled.
“This is just an attempt to weaken the protests in order to enact Netanyahu’s dictatorship,” she said. “Now is not the time to reduce the pressure, but to increase it.”
Dozens of protesters from rival sides faced off late Monday in central Tel Aviv. The sides, kept apart by police, exchanged insults, but there was no violence. Police used a water cannon to disperse anti-government protesters.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens have largely sat out the protests. Many say Israel’s democracy is tarnished by its military rule over their brethren in the West Bank and the discrimination they themselves face.
The Biden administration, which has been uneasy with Netanyahu and the far-right elements of his government, welcomed the announcement as “an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
Associated Press reporters Tia Goldenberg and Paz Bar in Tel Aviv and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.