JERUSALEM —Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday delayed a decision on bitterly contested plans for a judicial overhaul until next month amid fears that Israel's worst national crisis in years could fracture his coalition or escalate into violence.
Opponents of the plan to tighten parliament's control over judicial processes call it a threat to democracy and mobilized huge protests against it. Supporters of the legislation, including far-right football fans, have promised counter-demonstrations.
It was unclear how far the bill's delay to the next parliamentary session, announced by far-right coalition partner Jewish Power, will satisfy either side or cool a crisis the Israeli army chief said made "this hour different to any before."
A hard-right coalition partner, Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said he had agreed to the postponement in exchange for a commitment to submit the legislation in the next session of parliament.
Flights from Ben Gurion airport were grounded and seaports, banks, hospitals and medical services were also set to stop work as the head of the national labor union, Histadrut, called for a general strike to halt the judicial overhaul.
"We have not known such days of external threats coalescing, while a storm is brewing at home," Israeli army chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi said Monday.
Netanyahu, who called on Twitter for both sides to avoid violence, is trying to hold together his nationalist-religious coalition after his Sunday decision to fire the defense chief — who opposed his plans — prompted mass overnight protests.
While the Israeli government says the overhaul is needed to rein in activist judges and set a proper balance between the elected government and the judiciary, opponents see it as an undermining of legal checks and balances and a threat to Israel's democracy.
Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the overhaul must go ahead, highlighting tensions within Netanyahu's coalition. Smotrich urged supporters to join a protest, saying "we will not let them steal our voice and our country."
However — Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who has been leading the process — said that, as a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, he would respect whatever decision the prime minister reached.
"A situation in which everyone does as they wish is liable to bring about the instant fall of the government and collapse of Likud," he said in a statement.
As parliament passed a confidence vote in the government, tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, many waving the blue and white Israeli flags.
A counter-demonstration planned later in front of the Knesset was expected to include Jewish settler groups and football supporter groups such as La Familia, an ultra-nationalist group associated with the Beitar Jerusalem club.