Israel parties discuss justice reforms after Netanyahu U-turn

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Israel’s hardline government and opposition parties are set for a second day of talks on Wednesday over controversial judiciary reforms that have sparked a general strike and mass protests in the worst domestic crisis in years.

Doubts remained high over the negotiations on the overhaul of the judiciary, which would limit the authority of the Supreme Court and give politicians additional powers in the selection of judges.

US President Joe Biden, one of several Israeli allies who have expressed concern, urged Netanyahu to negotiate in good faith and warned against plowing ahead with the reforms.

President Isaac Herzog hosted the first day of talks between the government and the two main central opposition parties – Yesh Atid and the National Unity Party – on Tuesday.

“After about an hour and a half, the meeting, which was held in a positive spirit, came to an end,” said the president’s office.

“Tomorrow (Wednesday), President Isaac Herzog will continue the series of meetings,” he said.

After three months of tension that has divided the nation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bowed to pressure against a nationwide walkout on Monday.

The strike hit airports, hospitals and more, and thousands of protesters gathered outside the parliament in Jerusalem to oppose the reforms.

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

The decision to stop the legislative process was a dramatic U-turn for the capital, which announced a day earlier that it was sacking its defense minister who demanded the same step.

– ‘Ruse or Bluff’? –

The move was greeted with skepticism in Israel, with the president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank saying it did not amount to a peace deal.

“Rather, it’s a truce maybe in terms of regrouping, reorganizing, refocusing and then charging — potentially — charging fees ahead,” Yohanan Plesner told journalists.

The leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, reacted fiercely, saying on Monday that he wanted to be sure that “there is no ulcer or bluff”.

A joint statement on Tuesday from Yesh Atid Lapid and the National Unity Party of Benny Gantz, a former defense minister, said the talks would be stopped immediately “if the law is put on the Knesset (parliament) agenda”.

The US president warned that Israel “cannot continue down this road” of deepening division.

“I hope the prime minister … will try to work out a real compromise, but that remains to be seen,” Biden told reporters during a visit to North Carolina.

In a statement, Netanyahu said he admired Biden’s “long-term commitment to Israel.”

But he said: “Israel is a sovereign country that makes decisions according to the will of its people and not based on foreign pressure, including the best of friends.”

In an earlier statement, Netanyahu said the goal of the talks was to “reach an agreement”.

Meanwhile, activists have vowed to continue their rallies, which have lasted for weeks, sometimes drawing thousands of protesters.

“We will not stop the protest until the judicial coup is stopped completely,” said the Umbrella Movement of the demonstrators.

– ‘No turning back’ –

The crisis has exposed deep rifts within Netanyahu’s new coalition, an alliance of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, in a tweet on Monday, declared that “there will be no turning back” on the judicial overhaul.

His far-right cabinet member, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, pushed his supporters to rally in favor of the reforms.

Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party indicated 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 reform was suspended.

Writing in the left-wing daily Haaretz, political correspondent Yossi Verter said that “the truce was a victory for the protesters, but it is Itamar Ben-Gvir who really bent and trampled Netanyahu”.

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

Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party has sunk by 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 an election were held now.

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