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Israel Tensions Ease as PM Pauses Plan 03/28 06:14

   Israel's political factions opposed to embattled Prime Minister Benjamin 
Netanyahu began setting up negotiating teams Tuesday after he paused a 
controversial judicial overhaul plan that had set off unprecedented street 
protests and a spiraling domestic crisis.

   TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- Israel's political factions opposed to embattled 
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began setting up negotiating teams Tuesday 
after he paused a controversial judicial overhaul plan that had set off 
unprecedented street protests and a spiraling domestic crisis.

   But compromise seemed elusive and Netanyahu's legacy was on the line, in a 
standoff over the fundamental issue of what kind of country Israel should be -- 
and positions only appear to have hardened. Three months of demonstrations 
against the overhaul plan intensified this week and Israel's main trade union 
declared a general strike, leading to chaos that shut down much of the country 
and threatened to paralyze the economy.

   Netanyahu in a prime-time speech on Monday night acknowledged the divisions 
roiling the nation and announced a monthlong delay for the legislation. Within 
hours, analysts pointed out that firing his defense minister Sunday night 
heightened the outrage and sank Netanyahu's approval among his own Likud party 
- which left Israel's longest-serving leader with few choices.

   "He understood that he's in a dead end," said Yohanan Plesner, president of 
Israel Democracy Institute. "And Netanyahu, who is very experienced, understood 
that now is the time for correction."

   In his address, the premier said he wanted "to avoid civil war" and would 
seek a compromise with political opponents. Netanyahu spoke after tens of 
thousands of people demonstrated outside the parliament building in Jerusalem.

   His announcement appeared to calm some of the tensions that have fueled 
months of unrest. But it failed to address the underlying issues that have 
polarized Israelis. Netanyahu leads the most right-wing government in Israeli 
history and and his allies have vowed to enact the legislation.

   "I feel relief but with doubt," Fega Gutman, Tel Aviv resident, said 
Tuesday. Netanyahu over the years "promised us a lot but didn't always fulfill, 

   The pause gave many Israelis time to consider the challenge ahead.

   "I feel good today, everything calmed down from yesterday," said Maor 
Daniel, also from Tel Aviv. "We have to figure out together how to fix the 
situation, how to live together."

   A flurry of phone calls between rival opposition leaders followed 
Netanyahu's announcement and lasted into Tuesday morning, with several working 
groups named as the protests subsided and Israel's largest labor union called 
off its general strike.

   "When there's an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as 
prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue," Netanyahu said in his 
speech. He vowed to reach a "broad consensus" during the summer session of 
parliament, which begins on April 30.

   The country's figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, said pausing the 
legislative blitz was "the right thing" and offered to oversee the negotiating 
teams. He spoke in separate phone calls with Netanyahu, opposition leader Yair 
Lapid and National Union Party Chairman Benny Gantz, his office said.

   "This is the time for frank, serious and responsible discussion that will 
lead urgently to calming spirits and lowering the flames," Herzog said.

   National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist who has 
pushed for quick passage of the package, said it ""will pass," though he would 
respect the delay. "No one will scare us," he tweeted.

   Critics say the legislative package would hobble the country's system of 
checks and balances. Protesters vowed to intensify their demonstrations.

   The overhaul would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, 
and his allies the final say in appointing the nation's judges. It would also 
give parliament, which is controlled by his allies, authority to overturn 
Supreme Court decisions and limit the court's ability to review laws.

   Netanyahu has argued that the overhaul is needed to rein in a liberal and 
overly interventionist court of unelected judges. But his opponents say the 
package would concentrate too much power in the hands of Netanyahu's allies. 
They also say that he has a conflict of interest as a criminal defendant.

   Large swaths of Israeli society and governments around the world condemned 
the overhaul. Business leaders, top economists and former security chiefs have 
all come out against the plan, saying it is pushing the country toward an 
autocracy. Fighter pilots and military reservists have threatened not to report 
for duty, and the country's currency, the shekel, has tumbled in value.

   Tens of thousands of people, largely secular, middle-class Israelis, have 
regularly joined mass protests against it.

   The situation escalated on Sunday night after Netanyahu abruptly fired 
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had urged him to put his plan on hold, 
citing concerns about damage to the Israeli military.

   Chanting "the country is on fire," furious protesters lit bonfires on Tel 
Aviv's main highway, closing the thoroughfare and many others throughout the 
country for hours. Demonstrators continued Monday outside the Knesset, or 
parliament, turning the streets surrounding the building and the Supreme Court 
into a roiling sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags dotted with rainbow Pride 

   Departing flights from the main international airport were grounded, 
stranding tens of thousands of travelers. Large mall chains and universities 
closed their doors, and the union called for its 800,000 members to stop work 
in health care, transit, banking and other fields.

   Israel's Palestinian citizens have largely sat out the protests. Many say 
Israel's democracy is tarnished by its military rule over their brethren in the 
West Bank and the discrimination they themselves face.

   Even with the big issues standing, officials inside and outside Israel 
signaled relief that the pause had bought some time. The Biden administration 
welcomed Netanyahu's announcement, making its encouragement clear by dangling 
the prospect of an upcoming visit, "soon," by the Israeli premier to the White 

   "I had a nice night of sleep last night, thank God," U.S. Ambassador Tom 
Nides told Israel Army Radio on Tuesday. "This morning I'm optimistic and I 
applaud the move."

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