JERUSALEM (AFP): Israel’s hard-right government and opposition parties were set for a second day of talks Wednesday on controversial judiciary reforms that sparked a general strike and mass protests in the country’s most severe domestic crisis in years.
Skepticism remained high over the negotiations on the judicial overhaul, which would curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and give politicians greater powers over the selection of judges.
US President Joe Biden, one of several Israeli allies to have voiced concern, urged Netanyahu to negotiate in good faith and warned against simply plowing ahead with the reforms.
A first day of talks between the government and the two main centrist opposition parties – Yesh Atid and the National Unity Party – was hosted by President Isaac Herzog Tuesday.
“After about an hour and a half, the meeting, which took place in a positive spirit, came to an end,” the president’s office said.
“Tomorrow (Wednesday), President Isaac Herzog will continue the series of meetings,” it added.
After three months of tensions that split the nation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bowed to pressure in the face of a nationwide walkout Monday.
The strike hit airports, hospitals and more, while tens of thousands of opponents of the reforms 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 defense minister who had called for the very same step.
The move was greeted with suspicion in Israel, with the president of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank remarking that it did not amount to a peace deal.
“Rather, it’s a cease-fire perhaps for regrouping, reorganizing, reorienting and then charging – potentially – charging ahead,” Yohanan Plesner told journalists.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid reacted warily, saying on Monday that he wanted to be sure “there is no ruse or bluff.”
A joint statement Tuesday from Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the National Unity Party of Benny Gantz, a former defense minister, said talks would stop immediately “if the law is put on the Knesset’s (parliament’s) agenda.”
The US president warned that Israel “cannot continue down this road” of deepening division.
“Hopefully the prime minister will… try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen,” Biden told reporters during a visit to North Carolina.
In a statement, Netanyahu said he appreciated Biden’s “longstanding commitment to Israel.”
But, he added: “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”
In an earlier statement, Netanyahu had said that the goal of the talks “is to reach an agreement.”
Activists, meanwhile, vowed to continue their rallies, which have persisted for weeks, sometimes drawing tens of thousands of protesters.
“We will not stop the protest until the judicial coup is completely stopped,” the Umbrella Movement of demonstrators said.
The crisis has revealed deep rifts within Netanyahu’s fledgling coalition, an alliance with far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, in a tweet Monday, asserted “there will be no turning back” on the judicial overhaul.
Fellow far-right cabinet member, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, had pressed his supporters to rally in favor 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 right-wing 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 an election were held now.