Israel’s largest trade union group began strikes across a wide range of sectors on Monday, joining a growing protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu plans to overhaul the judiciary – a plan that is facing unprecedented opposition.
The strike by the Histadrut umbrella group, which represents more than 700,000 workers in many other sectors including health, transit and banking, could cripple large parts of Israel’s economy, which is already on shaky ground, increasing pressure on Netanyahu to suspend. Overhaul
“I am calling for a general strike,” Agence France-Presse Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David said in a televised address. “From the moment this press conference ends, the State of Israel ceases.
“We have a mission to stop this legislative process and we will,” he said, vowing to “keep fighting.”
The Israel Medical Association quickly announced a “total strike in the health system” that would affect all public hospitals, AFP reported.
Israel’s airport authority said flights departing from the country’s main international airport, Ben Gurion Airport, were grounded due to the strike. Hundreds of thousands are expected to be affected by flight changes. But planes will still be able to land at airports outside Tel Aviv.
Growing resistance to the plan came hours later Thousands of people burst into the streetsNetanyahu’s decision to fire the defense minister followed calls for the minister to halt the overhaul in a spontaneous show of anger across the country. Chanting “the country is on fire,” they set fire to Tel Aviv’s main road, closing it and many others across the country for hours as police clashed with protesters gathered outside Netanyahu’s private home in Jerusalem.
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The overhaul, driven by allies of Netanyahu and Israel’s far-right government on trial for corruption, has plunged Israel into its worst domestic crisis. This has given rise to a sustained and intense protest movement that has spread to almost all sectors of society, including its military, where conservatives have increasingly made it clear that they will not serve a country that is leaning towards dictatorship.
The crisis has further divided Israel, exacerbating long-standing and complex differences over the country’s character that have fueled it since its founding. Protesters say they are fighting for the nation’s soul, seeing the rebuild as a direct challenge to Israel’s democratic ideals. The government labeled them as anarchists to overthrow the democratically elected leadership.
The crisis has also cast a spotlight on Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, and the lengths he may be willing to go to maintain his grip on power while battling corruption allegations. His sacking of the defense minister appeared to many to be the last straw at a time of heightened security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere, sparking a new wave of opposition.
“Where are we taking our beloved Israel? To the abyss,” Arnon Bar-David, head of the Union Group, said in a rousing speech to applause. “Today we are stopping everyone’s descent to the Abyss.” The group sat out months of protests but the sacking of the defense minister provided the impetus for tougher action.
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On Monday, as embers from highway bonfires were being cleared, Israel’s official president, Isaac Herzog, called on Netanyahu to immediately halt the overhaul, urging the government to put aside political considerations in the interest of the nation.
“The whole nation is reeling in deep anxiety. Our security, our economy, our society – everything is under threat,” he said. “Wake up now!”
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former ally turned rival to Netanyahu, said Monday that Israel is “in the midst of a landslide of losing control.”
“We have not been in such a dangerous situation in 50 years,” he told Israeli Army Radio.
Universities across the country said they were closing their doors “until further notice”. Israeli media reported that a lawyer representing Netanyahu in his corruption trial threatened to resign if the overhaul was not stopped.
The developments are being watched in Washington, which is closely allied with Israel yet uneasy with Netanyahu and far-right elements of his government. National Security Council spokesman Adrienne Watson said the United States was “deeply concerned” by Israel’s development, “which further underscores the urgent need for reconciliation.”
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“Democratic values have always been and will remain a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” Watson said in a statement.
Netanyahu is said to have spent the night in consultation and is expected to speak later on Monday. Israeli media said he would stop the legislation, which could not be independently confirmed.
Some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party said they would support the prime minister if he heeded calls to stop the overhaul, but its architect, Justice Minister Yariv Lavin, a populist party member, said he would resign.
Netanyahu’s staunch allies pressured him to continue. “We must not stop reforming the justice system and we must not give in to anarchy,” said Itamar Ben-Gavir, the minister of national security.
Netanyahu’s sacking of Defense Minister Yoav Galant signals that the prime minister and his aides will move ahead with overhaul plans this week. The committee to move the legislation forward as planned met on Monday.
Gallant was the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against it, saying deep divisions threatened to weaken the military.
Netanyahu’s government has vowed this week to press ahead with a parliamentary vote on the centerpiece of an overhaul — legislation that would give the ruling coalition final say on all judicial appointments. It also wants to pass legislation that would give Parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.
A separate overhaul of legislation that would block a Supreme Court ruling to allow a key coalition ally to serve as a minister is being delayed following a request by the party’s leader.
Netanyahu and his allies say the plan would restore balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an intrusive court with liberal sympathies.
But critics say the laws would remove Israel’s system of checks and balances and centralize power in the hands of the ruling coalition. They also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because of his 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 wrongdoing and rejects allegations that the legal overhaul is designed to allow him to escape prosecution.
Netanyahu returned to power late last year after a long political crisis that sent Israelis to the polls five times in less than four years. The elections were a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness during the corruption trial.