JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a delay in his judicial overhaul plan Monday, saying he wanted to give time to seek a compromise over the contentious package with his political opponents.
Netanyahu made the announcement after two days of large protests against the plan.
“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue," Netanyahu said in a nationally televised address.
Striking a more conciliatory tone than in previous speeches, he said he was determined to pass a judicial reform but called for “an attempt to achieve broad consensus.”
Immediately after Netanyahu's statement, the head of the country's largest trade union said it would call off a general strike that threatened to grind Israel's economy to a halt.
Netanyahu spoke after tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside parliament and workers launched a nationwide strike Monday in a dramatic escalation of the mass protest movement aimed at halting his plan.
The chaos shut down much of the country and threatened to paralyze the economy. Departing flights from the main international airport were grounded. Large mall chains and universities closed their doors, and Israel's largest trade union called for its 800,000 members to stop work in health care, transit, banking and other fields.
Diplomats walked off the job at foreign missions, and local governments were expected to close preschools and cut other services. The main doctors union announced that its members would also strike.
The growing resistance to Netanyahu's plan came hours after tens of thousands of people burst into the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at the prime minister's decision to fire his defense minister after he called for a pause to the overhaul. Chanting “the country is on fire,” they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv's main highway, closing the thoroughfare and many others throughout the country for hours.
Demonstrators gathered again Monday outside the Knesset, or parliament, turning the streets surrounding the building and the Supreme Court into a roiling sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags dotted with rainbow Pride banners. Large demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa and other cities drew thousands more.
“This is the last chance to stop this move into a dictatorship,” said Matityahu Sperber, 68, who joined a stream of people headed to the protest outside the Knesset. “I’m here for the fight to the end.”
Netanyahu spent the day in consultations with his aides and coalition partners before announcing the delay. Earlier, some members of his Likud party said they would support the prime minister if he heeded calls to halt the overhaul.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been one of the strongest proponents of the plan, announced after meeting with the prime minister that he had agreed to a delay of at least a few weeks.
He said Netanyahu had agreed to bring the legislation for a vote when parliament reconvenes for its summer session on April 30 “if no agreements are reached during the recess.”
Netanyahu gave no timeline for a compromise to be reached in his speech, but expressed hope that the nation would heal and that people would enjoy the upcoming Passover holiday.
The speech appeared to calm tensions, but it did not resolve the underlying tensions behind the protests. Even before he spoke, the grassroots anti-government protest movement said a delay was would not be enough.
“A temporary freeze does not suffice, and the national protests will continue to intensify until the law is rejected in the Knesset,” organizers said.
The plan — driven by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies in Israel's most right-wing government ever — has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises.