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Israel’s right wing government offers to pause some judicial overhaul


JERUSALEM — Israel’s governing coalition, under withering pressure from mass street protests, international criticism and a direct appeal from President Biden, offered Monday to delay some parts of its controversial plan to overhaul the judicial system.

But it stood by pledges to enact the most provocative components — including a proposal to give the government greater control over the selection of Supreme Court judges — by early April, and the move did little to quell the paralyzing upheaval gripping the country.

Following a cabinet meeting, coalition leaders said they were prepared to moderate the planed overhaul by expanding the size of the committee that would select judges and offering more say to opposition and other members. Critics say the new proposal would still effectively allow the government to dictate the composition of the high court.

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Leaders of the opposition and protest movements dismissed the coalition’s offer, charging that the right-wing was still ramming through changes that would gut the balance of power between the government and judiciary.

“This won’t be the Judges Selection Committee, this will be the committee for appointing cronies,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said in a statement. “It is exactly what they planned from day one.”

The coalition of right-wing, ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties came to power in January after winning a four-seat majority in elections last fall, the fifth national vote in four years in the deeply divided country. The new government, the most conservative in Israel’s history, immediately proposed sweeping changes to the judiciary, saying the courts were biased in favor of Isreal’s leftist elite.

Opponents dubbed the campaign a “judicial coup” that would hobble the courts’ ability to review laws and tip Israel toward authoritarianism.

Among the proposed changes are measures that would protect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, from prosecution. They would also allow him to reinstate his longtime ally Aryeh Deri, the leader of an ultra-Orthodox party who was removed from his job as health and interior minister because of multiple criminal convictions.

Those measures are working their way through the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, which is scheduled to go into recess in early April.

The coalition’s offer Monday to slow its transformation of the judiciary, while limited, marked one of the first signs that the ongoing protests are creating divisions within the government. Less than a week ago, the coalition flatly rejected a compromise proposal from President Isaac Herzog, who warned the country was on course for “civil war.”

Now, some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party have gone public with fears that the turmoil threatens Israel’s economy, and their own standing.

“If the doomsday economic prophecies come true, the Likud is done for,” David Bitan, a member of the Knesset, said Sunday on television. “There are at least five Likud members who are in favor of stopping the legislation.”

But hard-liners were outraged at the proposal to slow the overhaul, accusing their fellow coalition members of caving to left-wing and international pressure.

“Now is not the time to fold or concede,” Likud member David Amsalem wrote on Twitter. “It wasn’t for this that we won the elections.”

The cracks are appearing in the more moderate parts of the coalition, but they are not yet wide enough to derail the restructuring effort, according to Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“There is some hesitation now in the Likud, but they didn’t go far enough,” Hermann said. “They didn’t give up on the most significant issue, which is the selection committee for the Supreme Court.”

The unrest that has racked Israel since the coalition launched its courts project showed no signs of easing. An estimated 250,000 protesters gathered over the weekend in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and organizers have called for another nationwide mobilization Thursday.

Hundreds of Air Force reserve pilots said Sunday they would boycott training this week, part of an unprecedented participation of military, security and intelligence personnel in civil protests that prompted Netanyahu to call on the Army chief of staff to crack down on objectors.

A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces confirmed that a number of reservists did not report for duty by Monday but declined to provide details.

Widespread international condemnation of the judicial overhaul also continued. Biden, in a phone call to Netanyahu on Sunday, offered to help broker a compromise.

Biden warns Israeli leader on judicial changes

Biden told the prime minister that “democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” according to the White House.

Netanyahu in turn, according to his office, “told President Biden that Israel was, and will remain, a strong and vibrant democracy.”

The two leaders also discussed the surge of violence in Israel and the West Bank. Amid attacks and reprisals that have killed more than 80 Palestinians and more than a dozen Israelis in recent months, representatives from Israel and the Palestinian Authority met in Egypt for the second time in a month to promote calm, along with mediators from the United States, Egypt and Jordan.

Both sides are braced for the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover holiday, both traditionally periods of spiking tensions in Jerusalem.

As with the first meeting in Jordan, violence erupted even as the participants were talking. A Palestinian allegedly opened fire on a car occupied by two Israelis in the West Bank. The driver, an American-born Israeli, was hit but managed to return fire, according to media reports. The assailant was later apprehended, according to the Israeli military.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.