Israel’s largest trade union group launched a strike across a range of sectors on Monday, joining a surging protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary — a plan that is facing unprecedented opposition.
The strike was called by the Histadrut umbrella group, which represents nearly 800,000 workers in health, transit and banking, among many other fields. Other sectors were also falling in line, with local governments, which manage pre-schools and other essential services, as well as a main doctors union announcing they would walk out.
“Today we are stopping everyone’s descent toward the abyss,” said Arnon Bar-David, the union group head.
It was unclear if the strikes would prompt Netanyahu to halt the overhaul. Universities across the country said they were shutting their doors “until further notice,” while departing flights out of the country’s main international airport were grounded in protest, affecting thousands of travellers.
Thousands of protesters were gathering on Monday outside the Knesset in a bid to ramp up the pressure on the government.
In a tweet, Netanyahu called on the protesters to refrain from violence.
Night of unrest
The growing resistance to the plan came hours after tens of thousands of people poured into the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at Netanyahu’s decision to fire his defence minister, who criticized the overhaul.
Chanting “the country is on fire,” they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, closing the throughway and many others throughout the country for hours.
The overhaul, driven by Netanyahu and his allies in Israel’s most right-wing government ever, has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises. It has sparked a sustained and intensifying protest movement that has spread to nearly all sectors of society, including its military, where reservists have increasingly come out publicly to say they will not serve a country veering toward autocracy.
The crisis has shone a light on Netanyahu himself, Israel’s longest-serving leader, and the lengths he may be willing to go to in order to maintain his grip on power, even as he battles the corruption charges. The firing of defence minister Yoav Gallant at a time of heightened security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere appeared to be a last straw for many.
Gallant had been the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against it, saying the deep divisions were threatening to weaken the military.
President wants bill stopped
On Monday, as the embers of the highway bonfires were being cleared, Israel’s ceremonial President Isaac Herzog urged Netanyahu to immediately halt the overhaul, calling on the government to put aside political considerations for the sake of the nation.
“The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society — all are under threat,” he said. “Wake up now!”
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Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said the crisis was driving Israel to the brink.
“We’ve never been closer to falling apart. Our national security is at risk, our economy is crumbling, our foreign relations are at their lowest point ever, we don’t know what to say to our children about their future in this country,” Lapid said.
“We have been taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries.”
PM faces lingering corruption cases
The developments were being watched in Washington, which is closely allied with Israel yet has been uneasy with Netanyahu and the far-right elements of his government. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the United States was “deeply concerned” by the developments in Israel, “which further underscore the urgent need for compromise.”
Netanyahu had reportedly spent the night in consultations and was set to speak to the nation, but later delayed his speech. Some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party said they would support the prime minister if he did heed calls to halt the overhaul, but the architect of it, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a popular party member, has said he would resign.
Netanyahu’s hard-line allies pressed him to continue on.
“We must not halt the reform in the judicial system and we must not give in to anarchy,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said.
The centrepiece of the overhaul is a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments. The government also seeks to pass laws that would would grant the Knesset the authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.
Netanyahu and his allies say the plan will restore a balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.
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But critics say the laws will remove Israel’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the governing coalition. They also say that Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because of his corruption trial.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate affairs involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and has dismissed accusations that the legal overhaul is designed to find him an escape route from the trial.