Israel’s largest trade union group went on strike across a wide range of sectors on Monday, joining a growing protest movement against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s plan to reform the judicial system — a plan that faces unprecedented resistance.
A strike by the umbrella group Histadrut, which represents more than 700,000 health, transport and banking workers, among many other industries, could paralyze large parts of Israel’s economy, which is already on shaky ground, increasing pressure on Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul .
The Israel Airports Authority said that departing flights from the country’s main international airport, Ben Gurion Airport, were suspended due to the strike.
Opposition to the plan began to mount within hours tens of thousands of people broke into the streetsacross the country in a spontaneous show of anger at Netanyahu’s decision to fire his defense minister after the minister called for the overhaul to be suspended. Chanting “the country is on fire,” they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, closing it and many others across the country for several hours as police battled protesters who had gathered outside Netanyahu’s private home in Jerusalem.
The reshuffle by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies in Israel’s far-right government has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises of all time. This has sparked a sustained and growing protest movement that has spread to almost all sectors of society, including the military, where reservists are increasingly publicly declaring that they will not serve a country that is moving toward autocracy.
The crisis has further divided Israel, intensifying long-standing and intractable differences over the character of the country that have torn it apart since its inception. Protesters say they are fighting for the very soul of the nation, seeing the overhaul as a direct challenge to Israel’s democratic ideals. The government called them anarchists to overthrow the democratically elected leadership.
The crisis has also shed light on Netanyahu himself, Israel’s longest-serving leader, and the lengths he may be willing to go to retain power even as he battles corruption allegations. The dismissal of the defense minister at a time of increased security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere was for many the last straw, sparking a new surge of opposition.
“Where are we taking our beloved Israel? To the abyss,” said Arnon Bar-David, head of the trade union group, in a stormy speech to applause. “Today we stop everyone’s descent into the abyss.” The group has withstood months of protests, but the firing of the defense minister appears to have been the impetus for decisive action.
On Monday, as embers from highway fires were cleared, Israel’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, called on Netanyahu to immediately halt the overhaul, urging the government to put political considerations aside for the sake of the nation.
“The whole nation is gripped with deep anxiety. Our security, economy, society are all at risk,” he said. “Wake up now!”
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former ally turned rival of Netanyahu, said on Monday that Israel was “on the verge of losing control”.
“We have not been in such a dangerous situation for 50 years,” he told Israel Army Radio.
Universities across the country said they were closing their doors “until further notice”. Israeli media reports that Netanyahu’s lawyer in the corruption trial has threatened to resign if the overhaul is not stopped.
The developments were watched in Washington, which is closely allied with Israel but has been uneasy with Netanyahu and far-right elements of his government. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said the United States was “deeply concerned” by developments in Israel, “which further underscore the urgent need for compromise.”
“Democratic values have always been and must remain a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” Watson said in a statement.
Netanyahu reportedly spent the night in consultations and was due to speak later on Monday. Israeli media said it would suspend the legislation, which could not be independently confirmed.
Some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party have said they will support the prime minister if he heeds calls to end the overhaul, but its architect, Justice Minister Yariv Lavin, a popular party member, has said he will resign.
Netanyahu’s staunch allies pressured him to continue. “We must not stop the reform of the judicial system and not succumb to anarchy,” said Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Netanyahu’s firing of Defense Minister Yoav Galant appeared to signal that the prime minister and his allies would embrace an overhaul plan this week. The committee advancing the legislation met as scheduled on Monday.
Galant was the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against it, saying deep divisions threatened to weaken the army.
Netanyahu’s government has vowed to go ahead with a parliamentary vote this week on the centerpiece of the overhaul, a law that would give the ruling coalition the final say on all judicial appointments. He also seeks to pass laws that would give parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.
Passage of a separate review law that would have bypassed the Supreme Court ruling and allowed a key coalition ally to serve as a minister has been delayed following a request from that party’s leader.
Netanyahu and his allies say the plan would restore balance between the judiciary and the executive branch and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.
But critics say the laws would eliminate Israel’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of a governing coalition. They also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because of the corruption trial.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three separate cases involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies his guilt and rejects accusations that judicial reform is designed to find him a way out of court.
Netanyahu returned to power late last year after a long political crisis that has seen Israelis go to the polls five times in less than four years. The entire election was a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption.