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Israel parties discuss justice reforms after Netanyahu U-turn

Opponents of the government's judicial reforms demonstrate outside the Israeli president's residence, the venue for the talks with opposition party representatives
— Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli politicians held a second day of talks Wednesday on controversial judicial reforms that sparked mass protests and a general strike in the country's most severe domestic crisis in years.

Scepticism remained high over the negotiations on the judicial overhaul, which foresee curtailing the authority of the Supreme Court and giving politicians greater powers over the selection of judges.

US President Joe Biden, one of several Israeli allies to have voiced concern, urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate in good faith, warning against ploughing ahead with the reforms.

But the prime minister said Israel would not bow to foreign pressure "including from the best of friends."

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 on 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.

Herzog continued the talks on Wednesday, holding discussions with three small parties.

"We oppose the evident attempts to thwart the protest," against the reforms, the Arab-led Hadash-Taal alliance said after meeting the president.

"We have no faith in Netanyahu's delay announcement because of past experiences," the faction said in a statement.

- US pushes 'genuine compromise' -

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, pictured here on January 30, 2023, warned that the country is 'on the verge of legal and social collapse'

After three months of tensions that split the nation, Netanyahu bowed to pressure in the face of a nationwide walkout on 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 defence 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 ceasefire perhaps for regrouping, reorganising, reorienting and then charging -- potentially -- charging ahead," Yohanan Plesner told journalists.

Israelis remained split with 52 percent believing there was no chance of reaching a compromise, according to a poll published Wednesday by the Maariv newspaper.

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.

Netanyahu retorted that 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."

On Wednesday, Netanyahu insisted Israel's alliance with the US was "unshakable".

"Nothing can change that," he said in virtual remarks to a democracy summit in Washington.

- 'Deceptive negotiation' -

Israeli military veterans join a protest against the government's judicial reforms on a highway north of Tel Aviv

Activists, meanwhile, vowed to continue the mass rallies they have kept up since January.

"We will not fall for this deception, and our fight will proceed with all our strength," the Umbrella Movement of demonstrators said Tuesday, decrying the "deceptive negotiations".

The crisis has revealed deep rifts within Netanyahu's coalition, an alliance with far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

The premier has yet to confirm whether his dismissal of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant still stands after the minister attended the launch of a new spy satellite in his official capacity on Wednesday, according to a government statement.

The leading extreme-right members of Netanyahu's cabinet -- Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir -- have both insisted the judicial reforms should go ahead.

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.

The affair has hit the coalition's standing among the Israeli public, with television polls showing Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party losing support.