Benjamin Netanyahu delays controversial judiciary overhaul in order 'to avoid civil war'

John Irvine reports on the unrest in Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu has delayed a controversial judicial overhaul plan saying he hoped to "avoid civil war through dialogue" after Israel was gripped by its largest protests in decades.

Israel has seen three months of unrest over the plans which have come to a head in recent days with military and government personnel speaking out against the plans.

Speaking to the nation, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had previously rejected calls to delay the legislation, took a conciliatory tone saying he hopes to reach a consensus on the reforms during the summer session parliament.

Huge portions of Israeli society are set against the policy, with general strikes being called for.

Israeli police evacuate protestors from highway

McDonald's branches were temporarily shut as the protests extended across the economy, and diplomats walked off the job at foreign missions.

Thousands of protesters gathered on Monday outside the Knesset, or parliament, to keep up the pressure, with the blue and white Israeli flags becoming somewhat of an emblem of the demonstrations.

Large demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa and other Israeli cities drew thousands more.

As the political crisis deepened, departing flights out of the country’s main international airport, Ben Gurion, were grounded in protest, affecting thousands of travellers.

Israelis scuffle with police during a protest against Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament in Jerusalem. Credit: AP

Earlier, President Isaac Herzog, who is supposed to stand above politics, urged the government to call a halt to the planned legislation, which would protect Mr Netanyahu from being deemed unfit to rule.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly welcomed Mr Netanyahu's decision to pause the reforms.

Mr Cleverly said: “The UK enjoys a deep and historic relationship with Israel. As the Prime Minister stressed in his meeting with PM Netanyahu last week, it is vital that the shared democratic values that underpin that relationship are upheld, and a robust system of checks and balances are preserved.

“We urge all parties to find common ground and seek a long-term compromise to this sensitive issue.”

Israelis protest against Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament in Jerusalem. Credit: AP

But Mr Netanyahu suggested it was just a “perfunctory” challenge from Mr Sunak that lasted less than a minute out of a 45-minute conversation.

The Israeli leader told Piers Morgan on TalkTV: “There was a debate in my team whether it was 45 seconds or 47 out of the hour, so yes he did raise it, you’re quite right, I don’t deny it.

“But I think it’s become a perfunctory thing. You sort of have to say it because people are pressing.”

Much of the conversation between the two prime ministers focused on strengthening ties between the UK and Israel and shared security challenges such as Iran and Ukraine.

Mr Netanyahu leads a right-wing fragile coalition which risks falling apart over the reforms.

Passengers look at the monitor displaying delayed flights at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel. Credit: AP

In a sign of the internal splits within the nationalist-religious coalition, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who heads one of its hardline pro-settler parties, called for the overhaul to go ahead despite the demonstrations.

"We must not stop the judiciary reform and must not surrender to anarchy," he tweeted.

Some members of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, however, said they would support the prime minister if he did heed calls to halt the overhaul.

Mr Netanyahu's coalition government on Monday narrowly survived no-confidence motions filed by the opposition in protest over its judicial overhaul plan, with one motion failing by a vote of 59-53 and a second by a vote of 60-51.

Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a highway. Credit: AP

After a series of scandals involving wealthy associates, Mr Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He denies wrongdoing.

Critics say the law is tailor-made to shield the leader from his corruption trial and his government is dragging the nation towards authoritarianism by upending its system of checks and balances.

A lawyer representing Mr Netanyahu in his corruption trial threatened to quit if the overhaul was not halted, according to local media reports.

On Sunday, the Israeli leader sacked Yoav Gallant as defence minister after he warned the overhaul plans risked "a clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state" and called for them to be suspended.

This led to mass protests and sparked growing discontent within the military.

The protesters say they are fighting for the very soul of the nation, seeing the overhaul as a direct challenge to Israel’s democratic ideals.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in March. Credit: AP

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past three months to demonstrate against the plan in the largest demonstrations in the country’s 75-year history.

In recent weeks, discontent has surged from within Israel’s army - the most popular and respected institution among Israel’s Jewish majority.

A growing number of Israeli reservists, including fighter pilots, have threatened to withdraw from voluntary duty if the laws are passed.

But the government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, has labelled protestors as anarchists out to topple a democratically-elected leadership.

Mr Netanyahu’s government has forged ahead with a centrepiece of the overhaul - a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments.

A parliamentary committee approved the legislation on Monday for a final vote, which could come this week.

The government also seeks to pass laws that would would grant the Knesset the authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.

A separate law that would circumvent a Supreme Court ruling to allow a key coalition ally to serve as minister was delayed following a request from that party’s leader.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know