TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s largest trade union group launched a strike across a broad swath of sectors 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 by the Histadrut umbrella group, which represents nearly 800,000 workers in health, transit and banking, among many other fields, could paralyze large parts of Israel’s economy, which is already on shaky ground, ratcheting up the pressure on Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul.
Departing flights out of the country’s main international airport were grounded in protest, affecting thousands of travelers. 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.
The growing resistance to the plan came hours after tens of thousands of people burst into the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at Netanyahu’s decision to fire his defense minister after he called for a pause to 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. Thousands of protesters were gathering Monday outside the Knesset, or parliament, in a bid to ramp up the pressure on the government.
The overhaul, driven by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, 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 turmoil has further divided Israel, magnifying longstanding and intractable differences over the country’s character that have riven it since its establishment. The 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 has labelled them anarchists out to topple a democratically-elected leadership.
The crisis has also shined a light on Netanyahu himself, Israel’s longest serving leader, and the lengths he may be willing to go to maintain his grip on power, even as he battles the corruption charges. The firing of his defense minister at a time of heightened security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere, appeared to be a last straw for many, prompting a new surge of opposition.
“Where are we leading our beloved Israel? To the abyss,” Arnon Bar-David, the union group head, said in a rousing speech to applause. “Today we are stopping everyone’s descent toward the abyss.” The group had sat out the monthslong protests but the defense minister’s firing appeared to provide the impetus for the drastic measure.
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!”
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.”
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.” Israeli media reported that a lawyer representing Netanyahu in his corruption trial threatened to quit if the overhaul was not halted.
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.”
“Democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Watson said in a statement.
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.
Netanyahu’s dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant appeared to signal that the prime minister and his allies will barrel ahead this week with the overhaul plan. 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.
Netanyahu’s government pledged to forge ahead with a parliamentary vote this week on a centerpiece of the overhaul — a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments. A parliamentary committee approved the legislation on Monday for a final vote.
The government also seeks to pass laws that would grant the Knesset, as Israel’s parliament is called, the authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.
A separate overhaul law that would circumvent a Supreme Court ruling to allow a key coalition ally to serve as minister was being delayed following a request from that party’s leader.
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.
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.
Netanyahu returned to power late last year after a protracted political crisis that sent Israelis to the polls five times in less than four years. The elections were all a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption.