Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday in a national address that he was putting a hold on the government’s judicial reform efforts in order to “provide a real opportunity for real dialogue.”
“We are on the path toward a dangerous collision in Israeli society. We are in the midst of a crisis that endangers the basic unity between us. Such a crisis requires us all to act responsibly,” he said.
“Yesterday, I read [National Unity Party Chairman] Benny Gantz’s letter in which he undertakes to enter in good faith into negotiations on all issues. I know there are other people who support this approach. To them I extend my hand,” said the prime minister, calling his decision “a timeout for dialogue.”
Noting that he first received support from his coalition members for his legislative postponement, he stressed that his government remains committed to passing judicial reform. “We insist on the need to bring about the necessary corrections to the judicial system. We are taking an opportunity to achieve them with broad agreement.”
The premier then announced that he was halting the reform legislation scheduled to be voted on in the current session, referring to a bill prepared on Sunday in committee concerning how judges are selected.
“Those who call for refusal, those who call for anarchy and violence, are consciously tearing the baby apart,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu began his speech with the biblical story of King Solomon and the two mothers who claimed the same child. Solomon declared that to discover the identity of the true mother, he would cut the baby in two. The false mother agreed to those terms while the real mother cried out against them.
“Also today, both sides in the national dispute claim the love of the baby, the love of the country,” he said. “I am aware of the enormous tension that is building up between the two camps, the two parts of the nation. I am attentive to the desire of many citizens to relieve this tension.”
“But there is one thing that I am not ready to accept. There is an extremist minority that is ready to tear our country apart. It turns to violence, sets fires, threatens to harm elected officials, fueling a fratricidal war and calls for refusal to serve—a terrible crime.
“The State of Israel cannot exist without the IDF, and the IDF cannot exist with refusals to serve. Refusal on one side will lead to refusal on the other side. Refusal is the end of our country, and therefore I demand from the heads of the security branch and the heads of the army to firmly oppose the phenomenon of refusal,” he said.
“Those who call for refusal, those who call for anarchy and violence, are consciously tearing the baby apart,” added the prime minister.
Netanyahu reassured his supporters that “one way or another” his government would bring the required reform in order to restore the balance between the government branches, “while preserving, and I add, even strengthening, the rights of the individual.”
He thanked the “tens of thousands” of supporters who came to Jerusalem “spontaneously, unorganized, unfunded, without a media push,” to raise their voices in favor of reform on Monday night. “Our way is just. A large majority of the public today recognizes the necessity of democratic reform in the judicial system.”
He concluded: “Citizens of Israel, we live in a generation of revival. History gives us an extraordinary opportunity. An opportunity that has never existed in the history of nations to return to our country, to build our homeland, and our country.
“Soon we will celebrate Passover, Independence Day. We will sit at the holiday table together, mourn our fallen together. Together we will celebrate our independence and express gratitude to the men and women of our security forces, who forget not for one moment their duty to protect all of us, all the time, because we all have a common destiny. We all have a common purpose. And this purpose is to ensure the eternity of Israel.”
Israeli protesters clash with Israel Police during a protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul at the entrance to Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. Photo by Erik Marmor/Flash90.
General strike sparked by dismissal of defense minister
Prior to his address, Netanyahu met with Otzma Yehudit Party chief Itamar Ben-Gvir, who threatened to bolt the coalition if the reform ground to a halt—a threat, if realized, that would almost certainly lead to the government’s collapse.
Ben-Gvir acquiesced to a legislative hold until the Knesset’s summer session. Netanyahu in turn agreed to greenlight the formation of a civilian national guard under Ben-Gvir’s authority.
The prime minister’s decision to halt the judicial reform came amid mass civil disobedience and a general strike sparked by his dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Galant, who urged on Sunday that the legislation be postponed for the sake of national unity and military morale.
Gallant said the societal divide had reached the IDF as an increasing number of reservists threatened to refuse to show up for army service. Members of the IDF General Staff warned last week that if the phenomenon persists, the military’s operational capabilities could be impaired within a month.
Spontaneous demonstrations took place across the country with protesters in Tel Aviv blocking the Ayalon Highway in both directions before being dispersed by mounted police and water cannons.
Israel’s Histadrut labor federation also declared a general strike on Monday, setting off a cascade of similar announcements, including the grounding of planes at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
“I tried to avoid a strike and a shutdown, but it is impossible to stay put in the face of this discrimination and polarization,” Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David said at a press conference.
The head of the workers union at the airport announced an immediate stop to departures at Israel’s main international gateway just minutes after Bar-David’s statement.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid urged Netanyahu’s coalition to freeze the legislative process and enter into negotiations with the opposition earlier Monday.
“I call on the government to come to its senses and speak to us—let’s go to [the President’s Residence] and have a country based on agreements and mutual respect,” said Lapid.
Netanyahu and his political allies held emergency meetings throughout the night, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog also called for an immediate halt to the legislative work on the reform bills.
The U.S. National Security Council weighed in on Sunday, saying Washington was “deeply concerned” by developments in Israel.
The events “further underscore the urgent need for compromise,” said NSC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson.
“As the president recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship. 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,” she said.
Netanyahu addressed the nation on Thursday night amid mass civil disobedience aimed at thwarting the judicial reforms. He promised to make them more balanced, but insisted that a law changing the makeup of the committee that selects justices would be passed this week as planned.
That changed with his Monday announcement in which he said that all reform legislation would be frozen through the holidays.