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Israel’s president Isaac Herzog has implored the government to halt a bitterly contested judicial overhaul, warning that the polarisation it had caused had put “our security, economy, society” under threat.

Mass protests erupted across the country overnight with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked his defence minister for urging a delay to the reform.

In a brief statement on Monday morning, Herzog, whose powers are largely ceremonial, appealed to Netanyahu to back down, warning that the “entire nation is rapt with deep worry”.

“For the sake of the unity of the People of Israel, for the sake of the necessary responsibility, I call on you to halt the legislative process immediately,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Wake up now! This is not a political moment; this is a moment for leadership and responsibility.”

The fight over the proposals, which would significantly weaken the powers of the judiciary, has plunged Israel into an escalating political crisis, unsettling investors, alarming its allies and sparking the biggest wave of protests in more than a decade.

On Sunday, US president Joe Biden’s administration said it was “deeply concerned” by the events in Israel and urged Israeli politicians to de-escalate the crisis.

“We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible,” said National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson. “We believe that is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens.”

Protests flared across Israel on Sunday night after Netanyahu sacked his defence minister Yoav Gallant, the most senior figure in his hardline government to come out against the overhaul, warning it was a threat to national security.

The firing sparked immediate outrage. A group of universities said they would go on strike from Monday morning, and Israel’s consul-general in New York resigned in protest.

The demonstrations followed three months of protests during which hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets and increasing numbers of reservists in the military have threatened not to report for training.

Hardliners in the coalition, however, welcomed Gallant’s departure. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultranationalist national security minister, who had called for Gallant to be dismissed after his statement on Saturday, congratulated Netanyahu.

Netanyahu said last week that the government would press ahead with the overhaul and bring the amendment that gives it greater control over judicial appointments to parliament for a final vote this week.

But in a sign of unease in the coalition, ministers for the economy, the diaspora and culture all said in the early hours of Monday that they would support Netanyahu if he decided to delay the overhaul. “The reform is necessary and we will carry it out,” economy minister Nir Barkat said in a statement. “But not at the price of civil war.”

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