Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced on Monday that he intended to postpone for at least a few weeks the process of adopting a controversial reform of the judicial system which deeply divides the country.
The politician said in an evening televised address that it was necessary to take a break to foster constructive dialogue and if possible avoid “a civil war”.
The announcement came after another day of protests involving tens of thousands of people accusing the ruling coalition of seeking to undermine the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court.
The movement took on a large scale on Sunday after Mr. Netanyahu announced his intention to dismiss Defense Minister Yoav Galant, accusing him of having publicly called for the suspension of the planned reform.
The country’s largest union had called for a general strike on Monday, giving additional impetus to the protest, which led to the closure of several hospitals and universities and slowed down the activities of Tel Aviv’s international airport.
“Benyamin Netanyahu’s room for maneuver is very slim. It’s like putting a thread through the eye of a needle,” commented Jake Walles, a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The scale of the protests gave him no choice but to stall but will not change, the analyst says, the determination of the most radical parties in the coalition to attack the powers of the country’s highest court.
Public Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who heads a far-right party, said online that he had agreed to postpone the adoption of the judicial reform for a few weeks while insisting that it “will pass “.
Mr. Walles noted that the far-right parties within the ruling coalition see the Israeli Supreme Court as a particular check on their hard line on the Palestinians and their desire to expand Jewish settlements in West Bank.
The religious parties that support the coalition see the tribunal as a “secular institution” hostile to their goals, adds the analyst, who expects the demonstrations to resume with renewed vigor in a few weeks, after the leave of Passover, if no substantial change is made to the content of the proposed reform.
The government had said it wanted to adopt before the suspension of the work of Parliament on April 2 a section providing for a revision of the composition of the commission for the selection of judges.
Netanyahu and his political partners also want to introduce a controversial notwithstanding clause limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to block laws passed by Parliament, which is also to be discussed further when elected officials return from the break.
Several opposition leaders said they were open on Monday to the idea of a dialogue with the government under the aegis of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who had called on Monday morning for the “immediate” suspension of the process of adopting the reform.
One of the civil society groups responsible for the protests told Agence France-Presse that it wanted to continue the protests until the legislative process was completely halted, accusing the prime minister of maneuvering “to weaken the protest”.
The United States on Monday welcomed the Israeli government’s decision, noting that it gave “more time to find a compromise”, while Canada reiterated its concern over the judicial reform under consideration.
Tamar Hermann, who directs the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Public Research in Israel, notes that the announced postponement could “give some breathing room”, but does not rule out the risks of social explosion in the long term.
The judicial reform has served as a trigger for the protest, which is also fueled, she says, by the aversion of a large segment of the population for the prime minister and the directions he seems ready to give to the country.
Critics of the politician, who faces a corruption trial, were particularly outraged last week by the adoption of measures limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to remove a sitting prime minister, Ms. Hermann noted.
Tensions over judicial reform arise as violent clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups escalate, particularly in the West Bank.
Mr. Walles notes that it is difficult to predict at this stage how the political difficulties of the ruling coalition in Israel will translate to this plan.
The United Nations called last week, at the start of Ramadan, “all parties to refrain from unilateral measures” that could cause “an escalation of tensions”.