27 March 2023

Israeli unions increase pressure on Netanyahu with nationwide strike

27 March 2023

Workers in Israel have launched a nationwide strike, threatening to paralyse the economy as they joined a protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.

But as Mr Netanyahu remained silent, signs emerged that he would soon delay the divisive programme.

His national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, announced late on Monday that the plan was being put on hold until the parliament’s summer session, which begins on April 30, giving time for the rival sides to seek a compromise.

Departing flights from the country’s main international airport were grounded, large shopping mall chains and universities shut their doors, and Israel’s largest trade union called for its 800,000 members – in health, transit, banking and other fields – to stop work.

Local governments were expected to close the pre-schools they run and cut other services, while the main doctors’ union announced its members would also walk out.

The spokesman for Israel’s largest trade union says diplomats at Israeli missions abroad are also striking against the government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Yaniv Levy, the Histadrut spokesman, said the missions were providing only emergency services. Ambassadors and consuls-general were among those on strike.

The growing resistance to Mr Netanyahu’s plan came hours after tens of thousands of people burst into the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at the Prime Minister’s decision to sack his defence minister Yoav Gallant after he called for a pause to the overhaul.

Chanting “the country is on fire”, they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main road, closing the thoroughfare and many others throughout the country for hours.

On Monday, thousands of protesters gathered outside the Knesset, or parliament, to keep up the pressure.

The overhaul – driven by Mr 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 sustained protests that have galvanised nearly all sectors of society, including its military, where reservists have increasingly come out publicly to say they will not serve a country veering towards autocracy.

Israel’s Palestinian citizens, however, have largely sat out the protests.

Many say Israel’s democracy is tarnished by its military rule over their brethren in the West Bank and the discrimination they themselves face.

The protesters say they are fighting for the very soul of the nation, saying the overhaul will remove Israel’s system of checks and balances and directly challenge its democratic ideals.

The government has labelled them anarchists out to topple a democratically elected leadership and says 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.

At the centre of the crisis is Mr Netanyahu himself, Israel’s longest serving leader, and questions about the lengths he may be willing to go to maintain his grip on power, even as he battles charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate affairs. He denies wrongdoing.

The sacking of his defence minister at a time of heightened security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere, appeared to be a last straw for many, including apparently the Histadrut, the country’s largest trade union umbrella group.

Arnon Bar-David, the group’s head, said in a rousing speech: “Where are we leading our beloved Israel? To the abyss.

“Today we are stopping everyone’s descent toward the abyss.”

On Monday, as the embers of the highway bonfires were cleared, Israel’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, called again for an immediate halt to the overhaul.

“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,” Mr Lapid said. “We have been taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries.”

It was unclear if the threats posed by the strikes to Israel’s economy, which is already on shaky ground, would prompt Mr Netanyahu to halt the overhaul.

Israeli media reported that a lawyer representing the Prime Minister 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 Mr Netanyahu and the far-right elements of his government.

US 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”.

She added: “Democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship.”

Mr Netanyahu had reportedly spent the night in consultations and was set to speak to the nation, but later delayed his speech.

Some members of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party said they would support the Prime Minister if he did heed calls to halt the overhaul.

The architect of the plan, justice minister Yariv Levin, a popular party member, promised he would resign if the overhaul was suspended. But on Monday, he said he would respect the Prime Minister’s decision should he halt the legislation.

However, Mr Netanyahu’s hard-line allies had pressed him to continue with the plans. “We must not halt the reform in the judicial system, and we must not give in to anarchy,” Mr Ben-Gvir had said.

Mr Netanyahu’s government also forged ahead with a centrepiece 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 ahead of a final vote, which could come this week.

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.

A separate law that would circumvent a supreme court ruling to allow a key coalition ally to serve as minister was delayed following a request from that party’s leader.

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