Israel’s president Isaac Herzog has urged political leaders to begin immediate negotiations to find a solution to the country’s political crisis, a day after the government delayed a bitterly contested judicial overhaul.

Israel has been gripped by its deepest political crisis in years since Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the most rightwing in the country’s history, unveiled a plan to rein in the powers of the judiciary in January, triggering a months-long wave of protests.

After Israel’s biggest trade union announced a general strike on Monday and tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protest, Netanyahu finally backed down, agreeing to postpone passage of the legislation until the next parliamentary session in May to allow dialogue.

In the wake of his announcement, Herzog spoke to Netanyahu and the two opposition leaders, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, and urged them to appoint negotiating teams to thrash out a compromise.

As he announced the delay on Monday evening, Netanyahu said he was acting “out of a desire to prevent a rift in the nation” but insisted that “one way or another”, his government would pass a judicial reform.

Gantz welcomed the decision to pause the legislative process, but Lapid, head of the largest opposition party, Yesh Atid, struck a more cautious tone.

“We‘ve got bad experience from the past and so first we’ll make sure that there’s no tricks or bluffing here,” Lapid said. “If the legislation really does stop, genuinely and totally, we are ready to start genuine dialogue.”

Other opposition figures expressed concern with how Netanyahu had promised his extreme-right coalition partner Itamar Ben-Gvir that a national guard would be set up under his aegis as national security minister, in order to persuade him to agree to a delay in the overhaul.

Gilad Kariv, from the opposition Labor party, said the national guard should be under the control of the police and that establishing it under the direct authority of Ben-Gvir would be “a serious threat to democracy”.

The US government, which had been pushing for a compromise, welcomed Netanyahu’s decision to halt the overhaul, which would have given the government and its allies greater control over the appointment of judges and severely limited the top court’s ability to strike down laws.

In an interview with Army Radio on Tuesday, Tom Nides, US ambassador to Israel, said Netanyahu was likely to receive an invitation to the White House — which had not been extended since he returned to office in December — after the Passover festival next month.

Netanyahu and his allies insist reform is needed to rein in an overly activist judiciary. But critics say the changes proposed by his government will fatally undermine Israel’s checks and balances, damage minority protections and weaken the economy.

Protests by groups both for and against the government’s overhaul plans continued on Monday night, with clashes reported in some areas.

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