Israel's 'fired' defence chief hangs on as Netanyahu hits pause
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -The Israeli defence chief whose dismissal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought the country's constitutional crisis to a boil is staying in office until further notice, aides said on Tuesday, suggesting government indecision on how to proceed.
Beset by three months of unprecedented protests against his nationalist-religious coalition's signature plan to overhaul the judiciary, Netanyahu on Monday hit the pause button and called for compromise negotiations with the centre-left opposition.
"Our goal is to reach agreements," he said in a pre-Passover toast to his staff, likening the crisis to a squabble among family gathered for the Jewish festival that begins next week.
But prospects appeared clouded. The opposition, citing the continued presence of the highly contested bill on parliament's line-up, threatened to boycott any talks should it proceed.
"The walls of suspicion and hostility are higher than ever," President Isaac Herzog, who has offered to mediate between the sides, lamented in a speech.
Herzog was set to hold a first meeting with the delegations on Tuesday, his office said.
The suspension of the reforms stabilised Israel's shaken economy and was welcomed by Western powers. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told Reuters he was launching a diplomatic outreach aimed at reburnishing Israel's democratic credentials internationally.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel said Netanyahu could get a long-awaited invitation to the White House soon. But questions lingered about Netanyahu's credibility - including in his own camp - after open dissent by some senior Likud party colleagues.
Among these was Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who on Saturday broke rank by openly calling for a halt to the overhaul in the name of preventing anti-reform protests from spreading in the military. A day later, Netanyahu said he was firing Gallant.
Ordinarily, that termination would have gone into effect on Tuesday. But Gallant aides said he never got the notification letter formally required to begin the 48-hour countdown to his removal from office, and was continuing to work.
Asked whether Gallant was being kept on or replaced, spokespeople for Netanyahu and Likud had no immediate comment.
PM'S POPULARITY SLUMPS
An opinion poll by top-rated Channel 12 TV found that 63% of Israelis - and 58% of Likud voters - opposed Gallant's ouster. Similar majorities supported Netanyahu pausing the reforms.
But with 68% of Israelis faulting him for the crisis, Channel 12 found that, were an election held today, Netanyahu and his coalition allies would lose. Two of those parties, Religious Zionism and Jewish Power, voiced misgiving at the reform pause.
Cohen sought to recast the reforms, the storm they prompted and Netanyahu's outreach to his opponents as sources of pride.
"The events of these weeks should only bolster our position in the world," Cohen told Reuters, adding the judicial overhaul showed "that we want to strengthen democracy and public trust".
Cohen said he would convene foreign ambassadors next week to drive home that message after briefing Israel's diplomats on it.
U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides sounded upbeat about the mostly non-violent protests, telling Israel's Ynet TV: "That's the beauty of democracy. People are expressing their views."
"We want to continue making sure that this continues," he added. In a separate interview with Israel's Army Radio, Nides said Netanyahu could expect to be invited to meet U.S. President Joe Biden some time after next month's Passover holiday.
Critics fear Netanyahu, who is under trial on graft charges that he denies, plans to use the reforms to curb the independence of the courts. He says he seeks balance among branches of government.
Jewish Power's leader, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said Netanyahu had assured him that if compromise efforts over parliament's Passover recess of April 2-30 fail, the coalition would pursue the reforms unilaterally.
In parliament, the coalition tabled for final readings the bill that would give Netanyahu greater control of the system for selecting judges. A parliamentary spokesperson called this a technicality. Asked how soon the coalition could call a ratification vote, he said: "In theory, the day after."
If that happens, opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz said in a statement, they would quit any negotiations.
While Israeli streets were mostly quiet on Tuesday, some of the tens of thousands of Israelis who have held escalating protests against the judicial overhaul said they would return.
"I will continue protesting until these reforms are completely dropped, because this isn't a set of reforms, this is a coup by the executive," said Eitan Kahana, a 27-year-old demonstrator in Jerusalem.
(Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Howard Goller, Alexandra Hudson and David Holmes)