Israelis wave the national flag at a massive protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial reform outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo
March 27 (UPI) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed controversial judicial reform plans Monday as the country grapples with ongoing protests.
The embattled leader of the Middle Eastern country announced the hold in a televised speech, stating Israel's Knesset parliament will vote on the legislation in May after reconvening following the Passover recess. The Knesset was slated to hold a vote on the first portion of the bill on Wednesday.
The delay will permit dialogue to create a consensus and prevent the country from devolving into civil war, Netanyahu said, while vowing that the reforms will be passed.
Israeli society was facing "a crisis that is a real threat to national unity," Netanyahu added, saying the pause will give time for calm and agreement to form on a plan that he said the majority of society is in favor of.
Opposition leaders had called for parliament to hold off on voting on the reform for weeks so deeper conversations could be conducted, but Netanyahu at first had refused.
Itamar Ben Gvir, national security minister and leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party that is part of Netanyahu's coalition government, allowed the government the extension in exchange for the controversial formation of a civil national guard that will serve under him, The Times of Israel reports.
Critics have described the creation of the national guard as a private militia that can be used to target Palestinians.
On Twitter, Ben Gvir praised right-wing protesters who on Monday demonstrated in support of the controversial legislation while promising that it will become law.
"The reform will pass. The national Guard will be established," he said. "No one will scare us."
Months of protests have only increased in response to the bill that would grant the government authority to make judicial appointments. On Sunday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, was dismissed by Netanyahu for saying in a speech that the government should set aside the judicial reform bill, breaking from the party line. He has since been offered the opportunity for reinstatement under the condition that he resigns from the Knesset.
In a single-sentence statement on Monday, Gallant said he welcomes "the decision to stop the legislation in favor of negotiations."
Following Gallant's dismissal on the weekend, Asaf Zamir, the consul general of Israel in New York, resigned from his post to add his voice to the opposition of judicial reform.
The Workers' Union protested early Monday, leading strikes at Ben-Gurion Airport halting all departing flights temporarily. Flights have since resumed after Netanyahu's announcement.
Protesters carrying signs criticizing the government for weakening Israel's democracy echoed the criticisms that have been levied by opposition leader Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog, both of which have previously asked to open a dialogue on the reform bill. Herzog supported Netanyahu's decision on Monday.
"This is the time to start an honest, serious and responsible conversation that will urgently calm the spirits and lower the flames," the president said.
U.S. officials have also supported a compromise between Netanyahu's pro-reform coalition and outspoken critics.
"We've been very clear privately with Israeli leaders, as well as publicly, with our concerns over developments in the last 48 hours, and again, strongly urge Israeli leaders to compromise here," White House national security communications coordinator John Kirby said, according to The Hill.
Obama-era U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said Netanyahu's judicial reform plan could weaken the bond between the United States and Israel, according to Haaretz.
"If the Israeli government were to go down a path where a large number of its own citizens and many fellow democracies in other countries really question whether Israel was still adhering to those democratic principles of rule of law, separation of powers [and] checks and balances, it would obviously be detrimental to the close bond between the U.S. and Israel," Shapiro said.
Though the Knesset will not move forward with judicial reform this week, it has passed the government's budget proposal for 2023-2024. The proposal passed in its first reading on Monday, the Jerusalem Post reported. Gallant was not present for the vote.