Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday night paused a judicial overhaul which triggered a general strike, political division and mass protests in the country's most severe domestic crisis in years.
After nearly three months of increasing tensions, Netanyahu said in a broadcast: "Out of a sense of national responsibility, out of a will to prevent a rupture among our people, I have decided to pause the second and third readings of the bill."
His comments came a day after he sacked his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who had called for a halt to the legislative process citing national security concerns.
Earlier Monday, prior to the prime minister's address, tens of thousands of protesters had rallied near parliament in Jerusalem after the strike declaration.
Flights had been disrupted, hospitals stopped non-emergency services, and even diplomats walked off the job.
But immediately after Netanyahu announced the pause, Arnon Bar-David, chairman of the Histadrut trade union confederation, called off the strike.
About 80,000 demonstrators joined the Jerusalem rally against the reform package, the latest such protest to draw tens of thousands, Israeli media estimated.
A nearby counter-demonstration drew thousands of right-wing backers of the overhaul, an AFP journalist said.
The proposed reforms would curtail the powers of the Supreme Court and give politicians greater powers over the selection of judges.
Demonstrators have for months decried the plans as a threat to Israel's democracy.
The Israel Medical Association had joined the strike call, announcing "a full strike in the health system" affecting all public hospitals, though it said life-saving treatments continued.
The stoppage also affected flights at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, where an AFP journalist saw multiple delayed departures.
Diplomatic staff were among those walking out, with Washington embassy spokesman Elad Strohmayer tweeting the Israeli mission "will be closed... until further notice".
- 'Tangible threat' -
Netanyahu's government, a coalition between his Likud party and extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, argues the changes are needed to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.
Following mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv overnight Sunday-Monday, President Isaac Herzog had also pressed for an immediate halt to the judicial programme, "for the sake of the unity of the people of Israel."
The government plans have sparked concern from Israel's allies including the United States.
The White House noted President Joe Biden had told Netanyahu that "democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship".
Yoav Gallant, the outgoing defence minister who had been a staunch ally of Netanyahu, on Saturday cited "a clear, immediate and tangible threat to Israel's security".
Referring to threats by reserve military personnel not to report for duty, he said: "The growing social rift has made its way into the (army) and security agencies."
Moments after Netanyahu fired Gallant, demonstrators waving national flags blocked a central highway in the coastal city of Tel Aviv.
- 'Mad reform' -
"We are calling on the government to stop this mad reform," Keren Mimran, a 57-year-old tech worker, who joined the Jerusalem protest on Monday, told AFP.
Figures from Israel's economically important hi-tech sector have played a key role in the protests and some analysts have said uncertainties related to the reforms had already triggered economic decline.
Despite the upheaval, Israel's national security minister called on right-wing supporters to join the counter-protest in Jerusalem backing the judicial shake-up.
"Today we stop being silent. Today the right wakes up," Itamar Ben-Gvir wrote on Twitter.
Israeli media reported the extreme-right minister held talks with the premier Monday afternoon and was threatening to quit if the overhaul was put on hold.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government "has undergone a hostile takeover by a messianic, nationalist and anti-democratic group".
The architect of the overhaul, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, said he will "accept any decision that Prime Minister Netanyahu makes" on the legislation.
Lawmakers were scheduled to vote this week on a central part of the proposals, which would change the way judges are appointed. That has now been put off.
A parliamentary committee has already amended the draft law to make it more acceptable to opponents, but the opposition ruled out backing any part of the reform package until all legislative steps are halted.
Netanyahu last week vowed to "responsibly advance" the reforms and "end the rift" they have caused.
In response, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Friday accused Netanyahu of "illegal" public intervention on the process of adopting the judicial reforms, citing potential conflict of interests due to his ongoing trial.
The premier faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)