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Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: Sebastian Scheiner/Getty Images
Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: Sebastian Scheiner/Getty Images

Jerusalem — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday delayed a decision on bitterly contested plans for a judicial overhaul until next month amid fears that Israel’s worst national crisis in years could fracture his coalition or escalate into violence.

It was unclear how far the bill’s delay to the next parliamentary session, announced by far-right coalition partner Jewish Power, will satisfy either side or cool a crisis the army chief said on Monday made “this hour different to any before”.

A hard-right coalition partner, security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said he had agreed to the postponement in exchange for a commitment to submit the legislation in the next session of parliament.

Opponents of the plan to tighten parliament’s control over judicial processes call it a threat to democracy and have mobilised huge protests against it. Supporters of the legislation, including far-right football fans, have promised counter demonstrations.

Flights from Ben Gurion airport were grounded and seaports, banks, hospitals and medical services were also set to stop work as the head of the national labour union Histadrut called for a general strike to stop the judicial overhaul going ahead.

Army chief of staff Lt-Gen Herzi Halevi said on Monday: “We have not known such days of external threats coalescing, while a storm is brewing at home”.

The delay followed a dramatic night of protests in cities across Israel, with tens of thousands flooding streets following Netanyahu’s announcement that he had dismissed defence minister Yoav Gallant.

A day earlier, Gallant had made a televised appeal for the government to halt its flagship overhaul of the judicial system, warning that the deep split it had opened up in Israeli society was affecting the military and threatening national security.

Furious scenes in parliament

During furious scenes in the Knesset early on Monday, opposition MPs attacked Simcha Rothman, the committee chair who has shepherded the bill, with cries of “Shame! Shame!” and accusations comparing the bill to militant groups that want the destruction of Israel.

“This is a hostile takeover of the state of Israel. No need for Hamas, no need for Hezbollah,” one MP was heard saying to Rothman as the constitution committee approved a key bill to go forward for ratification.

“The law is balanced and good for Israel,” Rothman said.

Three months after it took power, Gallant’s removal has plunged Netanyahu's hard-right coalition into crisis as it also faces a deepening security emergency in the occupied West Bank.

In a sign of the tension within the coalition, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who heads one of the hardline pro-settler parties in the coalition, called for the overhaul to go ahead.

“We must not stop the judiciary reform and must not surrender to anarchy,” he tweeted.

General strike call

The shekel, which has seen big swings over recent weeks as the political turbulence has played out, fell 0.7% in early trading before recovering some ground as expectations grew the legislation would be halted.

Update: March 27 2023
This story has been updated with new information.


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