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Netanyahu delays plans amid unprecedented protests across Israel


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he's delaying a vote in parliament on proposed changes to the court system. The proposal prompted widespread protests for months, and they intensified last night after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, who spoke out against the plan. Today labor strikes slowed service at hospitals and airports, and some military reservists skipped their duties. Protesters say the changes would put the courts under the control of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now from Tel Aviv. Hey, Daniel.


FLORIDO: Daniel, start by taking us through the dramatic events there today.

ESTRIN: Yeah, it was quite a day. I mean, all night long, protesters were blocking the main highway in Tel Aviv, the main metropolis in Israel. They were setting bonfires in the highway, and they were only cleared in the morning. And then hours later, the country's main trade union announced a nationwide strike. So as you mentioned, flights were grounded and delayed, and malls were closed. And even McDonald's closed in solidarity with the protesters. And the protesters went to Jerusalem, surrounded the Israeli parliament building. And everyone was waiting to see, would Netanyahu's coalition go ahead with their plan and actually hold a final vote on their controversial judicial overhaul that has sparked months of protests?

It seemed like they actually would hold that vote, but then his coalition partners huddled and then called on their right-wing supporters to come to Jerusalem and demonstrate in favor of the judicial overhaul. And thousands did. And then at night, Netanyahu got on live TV and said he was postponing this controversial legislation for just a month to give a chance for dialogue with the opposition. And then he is going to bring it back for a vote.

FLORIDO: OK - so postponing for just a month. But it doesn't sound like he's giving up on this proposal. What exactly are the changes he wants to make to the court system?

ESTRIN: That's right. He's not giving up. And, you know, the big picture is that he and his right-wing government think that the Supreme Court is too liberal and too powerful. So the main change that his government was pushing was to try to give the ruling coalition the power to actually select some Supreme Court justices. They don't have that power now. And it's part of this larger effort that Netanyahu wants to rebalance - in his words, to rebalance Israel's checks and balances, to give more power to elected officials and to take away some of the independence of unelected judges.

FLORIDO: So on the surface, I mean, these sound like some pretty technical changes. Why are people so opposed to these moves?

ESTRIN: You know, you have to understand that in Israel, there's no constitution. And the court - the Supreme Court is really the protector of individual rights and minority rights. And so protesters have been saying that these changes - if the government has power to select Supreme Court justices, it could tip the balance of the court. It could be a first step for this right-wing, ultranationalist religious coalition to try to pass their main agenda, which is passing laws that they want to, in the protesters' eyes, infringe on secular Israelis' rights, on LGBTQ rights and even rights for Palestinians.

FLORIDO: Well, you've been talking with people, protesters on both sides of this debate. What have they been telling you?

ESTRIN: Well, it was a really, really stormy day. And, you know, there were protesters against this reform in the streets with Israeli flags. And now that Netanyahu has suspended the government, the legislation, the protest organizers are saying democracy is still in danger. They are not calling off protests. They're vowing to continue. But the main trade union has called off the main nationwide strike. We're going to see if all these moves and if Netanyahu's freezing and suspension of the legislation will actually bring calm back to the country.

FLORIDO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Thanks, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.