The Israeli leader declared the suspension of a decision on his government’s bitterly contested judicial reform plans amid concern that the worst national crisis in years could fracture his coalition or escalate into violence.
By Erin Viner
“I say here and now: There can be no civil war. Israeli society is on a dangerous collision course. We are in the midst of a crisis that is endangering the basic unity between us. This crisis requires all of us to act responsibly,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address to the nation last night.
“When there is a chance to prevent civil war through dialogue, I – as Prime Minister – will take a time-out for dialogue. I will give a genuine chance for genuine dialogue. We insist on the need to enact the necessary changes in the judicial system and we will give a chance to achieving broad consensus. This is an incomparably worthy goal. Therefore, out of national responsibility, out of a desire to prevent a rift in the nation, I have decided to suspend the second and third readings of the law in the current Knesset session in order to allow time to try and reach that broad consensus, ahead of legislation in the next Knesset session,” said Netanyahu, pledging, “One way or another, we will enact a reform that will restore the balance between the authorities that has been lost, by preserving – and I add, even by strengthening – individual rights.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu nevertheless underscored that “supporters of the national camp” possess “the Knesset majority to do this alone, with immense support among the people.”
(Read the text of the Prime Minister’s full address below)
Over 100,000 Israelis protested outside the Knesset in Jerusalem yesterday as tens of thousands of others took to the streets at separate rallies nationwide, amid a general strike called by the largest labor union and entities in the private sector. In the first such action in Israeli history, the Ben Gurion International Airport, medical facilities, local and regional councils, universities and other institutions declared a general strike alongside the Histadrut Labor Union.
The sectors had joined forces in a widescale show of solidarity against the government’s judicial reform plan, fueled by Netanyahu’s firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for having warned repercussions to Israel’s security if the proposal is passed by the parliament. The strikes were called off after Netanyahu announced the delay.
The nation has been gripped by weekly and increasingly raucous nationwide demonstrations following the 4 January 2023 announcement that the Netanyahu coalition – which took office only days before on 29 December 2022 – of a sweeping “reform of governance” to limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench.
Israel’s right-wing 37th government, an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions, asserts it holds the mandate for changes, deemed necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.
The court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution, and that the government’s overhaul would weaken the courts, endanger civil liberties and harm the economy. The proposal has drawn fierce condemnation from Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials, military reservists and advocacy groups – further broadening already deep political divisions in Israeli society.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges which he denies, had dismissed the protests as refusal by leftist adversaries to accept the results of the 1 November’s election which resulted in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. He has ardently defended the judicial overhaul.
While some Israeli politicians tentatively welcomed delay of the plan, some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners called it a mistake and protest leaders said they would keep up demonstrations until the legislation is dropped entirely.
“Stopping the legislation is the right thing. This is the time to begin a sincere, serious, and responsible dialogue that will urgently calm the waters and lower the flames,” said Israeli President Isaac Herzog. Even though his role is largely ceremonial, Herzog staged a rare intervention into politics earlier yesterday to plead with Netanyahu to halt his judicial overhaul for the sake of national unity.
“I call on everyone to act responsibly. 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. For the sake of our unity and for the sake of our children’s future, we must start talking, here and now. The President’s Residence, the People’s Home, is a space for dialogue and the formation of as broad agreements as possible, with the aim of extracting our beloved State of Israel from the deep crisis that we are in. “And you gave peace in the Land, and eternal joy to its inhabitants,” he added.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid issued a statement welcoming a “genuine dialogue at the President’s Residence” if there is a true halt of the legislation.
“We‘ve had bad experience in the past and so first we’ll make sure that there’s no tricks or bluffing,” said the Yesh Atid party leader, revealing reports that “Netanyahu told the people close to him that he isn’t really stopping, just trying to calm the situation.” If Netanyahu does not follow through, said Lapid, he will be met by “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.” If, however, the government “engages in a real and fair dialogue we can come out of this moment of crisis — stronger and more united— and we can turn this into a defining moment in our ability to live together,” he added.
In an address of his own about 15 minutes after Netanyahu spoke, Opposition leader Benny Gantz said, “These are terrible days from which we must emerge strengthened and united. I stood here before several weeks and said that we may face civil war and that Netanyahu would be responsible. I praise his decision to halt (the legislation) – better late than never.” While “the Prime Minister is the first responsible for ripping apart the public. But we all bear responsibility – coalition and opposition – to heal the rift. No one has the right to evade this responsibility, said the National Unity party leader, pledging “to enter into dialogue with an open heart and a keen soul, not with a purpose to subdue but rather to succeed. We will come to the President’s Residence with outstretched hands.”
Lieutenant General (Res.) Gantz -who formerly served as Alternate Premier, Defense Minister and IDF Chief of Staff – joined Yair Lapid in calling for Gallant’s reinstatement. Citing the campaign to prevent Iranian nuclear ambitions and regional terror, sporadic rocket fire by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and other critical challenges, Gantz insisted, “this is not the time to drop a bomb on Israel’s democracy, it is not the time to dismiss the Defense Minister and grant our enemies a reward.”
Concerns over national security and what he called a “deep split” in Israeli society had prompted Defense Minister Gallant to urge Netanyahu to shelve the legislation, prompting the Prime Minister to decide to sack him on Sunday. The removal of Jerusalem’s top defense official fed accusations the government was sacrificing the national interest for its own, especially at a time when the army is reinforcing in the West Bank with violence there increasing. Gallant, a member of the ruling Likud party, welcomed Netanyahu’s decision to halt the reform.
On the streets, the views of Israelis attending the opposing rallies underscored the continued divisions.
“Now is not the time to reduce the pressure, but to increase it,” asserted one of the main protest leaders Shikma Bressler, who accused Netanyahu of trying to weaken the demonstrations.
“The proposal that Netanyahu is putting forward was very dangerous. Any democracy needs checks and balances,” said Benjay Saier.
“No one wants the reform to be stopped because it’s not OK. They started a process and they need to complete it,” said government supporter Avia Itzhaky, 23.
One of Netanyahu’s hard-right and controversial coalition partners, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, revealed he only agreed to the delay on condition that advancement of the bill will resume after the upcoming Knesset recess and because Netanyahu agreed to form a long-sought National Guard under his ministry – a highly-contentious move opponents fiercely criticize as giving him his own militia.
Tens of thousands of right-wing counter-protestors rallied outside the Knesset and elsewhere yesterday and overnight at the urging of Ben-Gvir and Knesset Constitution, Justice and Law Committee Head Simcha Rothman, in demonstrators that led to clashes between the sides. Several rightwing protestors also attacked Arab pedestrians and drivers.
Ben-Gvir had reportedly threatened to resign from the coalition if the judicial reform was halted, and only backtracked when Netanyahu provided him with a written pledge to form a new National Guard under his purview. The move has sparked major backlash from critics who charge the Otzma Yehudit party leader intends to the new force as what they deem a rightwing militia.
The United States, whose top officials had maintained regular contact with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his senior associates in recent days over the reform crisis, welcome the pause in advancing the bill.
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,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, stressing, ”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.”
The White House Press Spokesperson went on to underscore that, ”US support for Israeli security and democracy remains ironclad. That is continuing to be the case but we will always have those honest and frank conversations with our partners, with our friends as well.”
Also greeting the move, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said, “it is vital that the shared democratic values that underpin that relationship are upheld, and a robust system of checks and balances are preserved.”
Full Statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
“Citizens of Israel,
Three thousand years ago, here in Jerusalem, the judgement of Solomon took place. Two women came before King Solomon. Each one claimed that she was the real mother of the infant. King Solomon commanded that a sword be brought and that the baby be cut in half. One woman was prepared to rend the baby in two while the other woman absolutely refused and insisted that the infant stay alive and whole.
Today as well, both sides in the national controversy claim to love the infant, to love our country. I am aware of the enormous tension that is building between the two sides, between two parts of the nation, and I am attentive to the desire of many citizens to dispel this tension.
However, there is one thing that I cannot accept. There is an extremist minority that is prepared to tear our country to pieces. It is using violence and incitement, it is threatening to harm elected officials, it is stoking civil war, and it is calling for refusal to serve, which is a terrible crime.
The State of Israel cannot exist without the IDF and the IDF cannot exist with refusal to serve. Refusal to serve by one side will lead to refusal to serve by the other. Refusal to serve is the end of our country. Therefore, I demand that the heads of the security services and of the army vigorously oppose the phenomenon of refusal to serve, not contain it, not understand it, not accept it – but put a stop to it.
Those who call for refusal to serve, those who call for anarchy and violence, are knowingly cutting the baby in two. But the overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens on both sides of the divide do not want to rend the infant. They are unwilling to cut the nation in two.
Citizens of Israel,
I am unwilling to cut the nation in two. For three months I have repeatedly called for dialogue and also said that I would leave no stone unturned to find a solution because I remember, we remember, that we are not facing enemies but our brothers.
I say here and now: There can be no civil war. Israeli society is on a dangerous collision course. We are in the midst of a crisis that is endangering the basic unity between us. This crisis requires all of us to act responsibly.
Yesterday I read Benny Gantz’s letter in which he promised in good faith to enter into a dialogue on all issues. I know that there are additional people who support his approach. To them I extend my hand and I do so after having received the consent of most of my colleagues.
When there is a chance to prevent civil war through dialogue, I – as Prime Minister – will take a time-out for dialogue. I will give a genuine chance for genuine dialogue. We insist on the need to enact the necessary changes in the judicial system and we will give a chance to achieving broad consensus. This is an incomparably worthy goal.
Therefore, out of national responsibility, out of a desire to prevent a rift in the nation, I have decided to suspend the second and third readings of the law in the current Knesset session in order to allow time to try and reach that broad consensus, ahead of legislation in the next Knesset session. One way or another, we will enact a reform that will restore the balance between the authorities that has been lost, by preserving – and I add, even by strengthening – individual rights.
From here, I would like to appeal to the supporters of the national camp: We have the Knesset majority to do this alone, with immense support among the people. Many of our supporters came to Jerusalem this evening in order to support the reform, to say: We need change, we need reform.
I would like to say to you: I am proud of you. You are not second-class citizens. I appreciate that you turned out today in the streets of our capital in order to make your democratic voice heard. Nobody will silence your voice, our voice.
I must say something else: You came spontaneously, unorganized and unfinanced, not pushed by the media, with all your heart and soul. You have touched me. I only ask of you one thing: Continue to act responsibly and do not be dragged into any provocation.
Our path is just. Today, the great majority of the public recognizes the urgency of democratic reform of the judicial system. We will not allow anyone to rob the people of its free choice. While we will not give up on the path for which we were elected, we will make the effort to achieve broad agreement.
Citizens of Israel,
We live in the generation of national revival. History has given us an extraordinary opportunity, unprecedented in the annals of nations, to return to our land and build up our homeland and our state.
Soon we will celebrate Passover, the days of remembrance and Independence Day.
We will gather around the holiday table – together.
We will mourn our fallen – together.
We will celebrate our independence – together.
And together we will thank the men and women of the security forces, who do not forget, even for a moment, their duty to defend all of us, all the time.
We all have a common fate and we all have a common mission, which is to ensure the eternity of Israel.”