Caution in crisis-hit Israel as talks set to start

AFP , Tuesday 28 Mar 2023

Caution prevailed in Israel Tuesday ahead of the first talks between the government and opposition after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paused controversial judicial reforms which sparked a general strike and mass protests.

Isaac Herzog
Israel s President Isaac Herzog at the president s residence in Jerusalem. AP


With the crisis far from over, President Isaac Herzog's office said he had invited representatives of the ruling coalition and the two main opposition parties "for a first dialogue meeting" at his residence from 7:30 pm (1630 GMT).

After three months of increasing tensions that split the nation, Netanyahu bowed to pressure in the face of a nationwide walkout Monday which hit airports, hospitals and more, while tens of thousands of reform opponents rallied outside parliament in Jerusalem.

"Out of a will to prevent a rupture among our people, I have decided to pause the second and third readings of the bill" to allow time for dialogue, the prime minister said in a broadcast.

The decision to halt the legislative process marked a dramatic U-turn for the premier, who just a day earlier announced he was sacking his defence minister who had called for the very same step.

The move was greeted with scepticism in Israel, with the president of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank remarking it does not amount to a peace deal.

"Rather, it's a ceasefire perhaps for regrouping, reorganising, reorienting and then charging, potentially, charging ahead," Yohanan Plesner told journalists.

'Ruse Or Bluff' 

Opposition leader Yair Lapid reacted warily, saying Monday he wanted to be sure "that there is no ruse or bluff".

A joint statement Tuesday from Lapid's party and that of Benny Gantz, the former defence minister, said such talks will stop immediately "if the law is put on the Knesset's (parliament's) agenda".

The opposition had previously refused to negotiate over the reforms, which would hand politicians more power over the judiciary, until the legislative process was stopped.

"The goal is to reach an agreement," Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday.

Activists who have led nearly three months of protests against the reform package vowed to continue their rallies.

"This is another attempt of Netanyahu trying to gaslight the Israeli public in order to weaken the protest and then enact a dictatorship," the Umbrella Movement of demonstrators said.

"We will not stop the protest until the judicial coup is completely stopped," it added in a statement.

'No Turning Back' 

The crisis has revealed deep rifts within Netanyahu's fledgling coalition, an alliance with far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich asserted "there will be no turning back" on the judicial overhaul, in a tweet Monday.

Fellow far-right cabinet member, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, had pressed his supporters to rally in favour of the reforms.

Ben-Gvir's Jewish Power party revealed on Monday that the decision to delay the legislation involved an agreement to expand the minister's portfolio after he threatened to quit if the overhaul was put on hold.

Writing in the left-wing daily Haaretz, political correspondent Yossi Verter said the pause was "a victory for the protesters, but the one who really bent Netanyahu and trampled on him is Itamar Ben-Gvir".

The affair has hit the coalition's standing among the Israeli public, just three months after it took office.

Netanyahu's Likud party has dipped seven points, according to a poll by Israel's Channel 12 which predicted the government would lose its majority in the 120-seat parliament if elections were held.

The fate of the ousted defence minister, Yoav Gallant, was unknown on Tuesday with speculation in Israeli media that he could be reinstated.

Gallant, who had warned the crisis threatened national security, on Monday welcomed "the decision to stop the legislative process in order to conduct dialogue," his team said.

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