Netanyahu pauses judicial overhaul after protests paralyze Israel

A general strike halted medical services to flights to meals served by McDonald’s restaurants.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed Monday evening to pause a divisive plan to overhaul Israel’s judicial system until the next parliament session after widespread unrest.

As unprecedented strikes gripped Israel, Netanyahu said he was postponing voting on the judicial overhaul to allow time to reach a consensus.

“I will turn every stone in order to find a solution,” he said in a televised address. “We are in the height of the crisis that is threatening our basic unity.”

But he maintained that the overhaul was still needed.

"A large majority of the public today recognizes the necessity of democratic reform in the judicial system," he said.

Netanyahu spoke after a paralyzing day in which hundreds of thousands of people refused to work to protest the government’s proposal. The general strike was called off after his speech.

Netanyahu changed his plans after National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, who had been a major hurdle to postponing the vote, said he would agree to delay it.

A national guard under Ben-Gvir’s ministry will be established as part of the agreement, his party said in a statement. 

"I agreed to remove the veto for the postponement of the legislation, in exchange for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment that the legislation will be brought to the Knesset for approval in the next session," said Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist.

President Isaac Herzog, who was among those who called for the changes to be halted, praised the decision and urged protesters on both sides not to resort to violence.

"This is the time to begin a sincere, serious and responsible dialogue that will urgently calm the waters and lower the flames," he said.

Unrest broke out Sunday night after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who became the first member of his Likud Party to speak out against the proposed changes. Gallant had warned that divisions over the plans threatened Israel’s security.

"I welcome the decision to stop the legislation in favor of negotiations," Gallant tweeted Monday evening.

The proposal by Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition in January would threaten the independence of the Supreme Court and limit judges’ powers, critics say. It has faced stiff opposition, with Israelis regularly taking to the streets to demonstrate.

Earlier Monday, Israel’s largest trade union called for a general strike, which halted medical services to flights to meals served by McDonald's restaurants.

Protesters block a road and gather around a bonfire in Tel Aviv early Monday. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP - Getty Images

Before the proposal was paused, large crowds of protesters and counterprotesters gathered in the shadow of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, many waving Israeli flags. Some chanted into megaphones or banged on drums.

Leah Basa, 23, said she felt Netanyahu's plan would lead to the "downfall of democracy."

"I'm protesting the reform which is going to get rid of the checks and balances and get rid of the separation of powers," she said. "I think that it is causing so many rips in society. No matter which side wins, nobody is going to win in the end, because whether the reform passes or doesn't both sides just hate each other so much."

Israelis protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside Parliament in Jerusalem on Monday. Ohad Zwigenberg / AP

Salome Dunaevsky, 57, said she felt Netanyahu's plan would cause chaos.

"It gives total power, almost total power, to the politicians," she said. "It means that there is no rule. You can do whatever."

But not everyone welcomed the delay.

"I feel terrible," Ori Rosenthal, 37, said. "We elected them to do the job, and they surrendered to everyone. The minority is terrorizing the majority, and that's not democracy."

Israeli diplomatic staffers were among those on strike Monday on the advice of their trade union, said a diplomat who was not authorized to brief the media. Israel’s embassies in Washington and elsewhere around the world shut as a result, and some diplomats replaced their social media profile pictures with the Israeli flag.

Peter Lerner, the head of international relations at Histadrut, the Israeli trade union umbrella group representing 700,000 workers, tweeted a video of cheering activists. He said the group’s chairman, Arnon Bar-David, had just told the meeting: “We are stopping the legal revolution.”

In response to Netanyahu's address Monday evening, Bar-David ended the general strike and said he would assist him in leading negotiations.

"I call on all my friends in the government and in the Knesset, from the left and the right, to put ego aside and see the good of the people and the future of Israeli society before your eyes," he said.  

Monday's unrest affected many sectors. Israel's airport authority confirmed just before 11 a.m. (4 a.m. ET) that all departing flights from Ben-Gurion International Airport would be grounded.

Two of Israel’s main seaports, Haifa and Ashdod, said in separate statements reported by Reuters that they would shut down in support of the general strike.

Big brands also took part in the protest: McDonald's said it would begin closing its restaurants across the country from midday (5 a.m. ET) before a full national closing beginning at 2 p.m. (7 a.m. ET).

Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators in Tel Aviv early Monday. Oren Ziv / AP

Israel’s leading universities also closed Monday in protest against both Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan and Gallant’s firing, saying in a statement that the changes could lead to a “brain drain” in Israel and discourage international students.

Netanyahu’s planned overhaul also prompted international pressure.

Israel’s consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir, announced Sunday night that he would resign after 18 months in the job over the judicial changes and the defense minister’s firing.

And the White House National Security Council said in a statement Sunday night that the most recent protests “further underscore the urgent need for compromise.”

“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,” it said.

Patrick Smith reported from London, Ali Zelenko reported from Jerusalem, and Elizabeth Chuck reported from New York.