Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday announced a softening of his judicial overhaul plan but an unallayed opposition said it would still challenge key legislation in the Supreme Court, setting the stage for a constitutional showdown.
The package of reforms sought by Netanyahu's religious-nationalist coalition have triggered weeks of unprecedented street demonstrations and stirred worries among Western allies who see a threat to the independence of Israel's justice system.
After discussing the crisis with US President Joe Biden, Netanyahu said he would postpone most of the bills apart from legislation shaking up Israel's system for selecting judges, which he wants ratified before a parliament recess on April 2.
His justice minister, however, said the delay was more technical due to the constrained timeline, adding that he remained committed to carrying out all the proposed changes and warned against high court intervention.
The bill for selecting judges underwent amendments in a Knesset review panel on Sunday that would reduce the likely majority for coalition figures on a panel that reviews appointments to the bench.
Netanyahu in a statement with coalition partners described his revised overhaul as "extending a hand to anyone who genuinely cares about national unity and the desire to reach an agreed accord."
That was spurned by the centre-left opposition.
"This is a blueprint for a hostile takeover of the justice system," opposition leader Yair Lapid said in televised remarks. "The moment the change to the Judicial Appointments Committee passes, we will appeal against it at the Supreme Court."
Asked about the high court possibly striking down the new legislation, Justice Minister Yariv Levin said it had no justification to intervene after the amendment.
"It would be crossing every red line. We certainly would not accept it," Levin said in an interview with Channel 14, without offering specifics.
Netanyahu pushed another contested bill through a preliminary vote in parliament that, if ratified, will hinder judicial oversight of ministerial appointments. It is meant to allow him to reappoint a cabinet minister with a criminal past who the Supreme Court had ordered him to dismiss.
Legal scholars have worried that the rift within Israeli society over the overhaul - which Netanyahu says will balance the branches of government - could deepen catastrophically if the top court is asked to overturn legislation affecting it.
Biden in Sunday's phone conversation said he would support a compromise on the judicial overhaul and encouraged checks and balances as well as building broad agreement, according to the White House. Netanyahu reassured Biden of the health of Israeli democracy, according to the prime minister's office.
Previously, the bill envisaged the panel including three cabinet ministers, two coalition lawmakers and two public figures chosen by the government - spelling a 7-4 vote majority.
In its amended form, the bill envisages the panel being made up of three cabinet ministers, three coalition lawmakers, three judges and two opposition lawmakers. That could make for a slimmer and less assured 6-5 majority for the government.
The amended bill further stipulates that no more than two Supreme Court justices can be appointed by regular panel voting in a given Knesset session. Any appointments beyond that would have to be approved by a majority vote including at least one judge and one opposition lawmaker among selection panel members.
The Black Flags activist group said demonstrations that have already shaken the country and reached into its normally apolitical military would be intensified. It accused Netanyahu of attempting "to put the protest to sleep with pretty words."
Netanyahu had faced some coalition censure, though his conservative Likud party voted overwhelmingly in favour of the amended bill.