General strike declared as Israel's judicial reform puts Netanyahu’s future in doubt

Critics say reforms would deal fatal blow to Israeli democracy

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's future was on Monday hanging in the balance as he delayed a statement over the future of a judicial overhaul after splits emerged in his coalition government and strikes brought the country to a halt.

Mr Netanyahu called for calm “on both sides” as reports emerged of pro-government protests outside the Knesset.

“I call on all the demonstrators in Jerusalem, on the right and the left, to behave responsibly and not to act violently. We are brotherly people,” he wrote on Twitter.

Mr Netanyahu is being pressed to pause the judicial overhaul after overnight protests in which 600,000 people took to the streets across the country.

On expectation of a u-turn, the Israeli shekel was up by about 1 per cent against the US dollar and all the indexes on the Tel Aviv stock exchange were trading higher on Monday afternoon, with the main TA-125 index up 2 per cent.

Flights from Israel's main Ben Gurion Airport were suspended on Monday as a general strike against the government's plans widened, an airport representative said.

Far-right counter-demonstrators called for rallies in Jerusalem on Monday evening. Football hooligans and Jewish supremacist organisations called on members to use violent means against anti-reform protesters.

Israel’s domestic security service Shin Bet has expressed “significant fears” over extreme-right attacks. Meanwhile, in his first comments since he sacked Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday evening, Mr Netanyahu called on protesters on both sides to “act responsibly and not act violently.”

Israel's top trade union chief called a general strike to protest against the proposed changes, which would weaken the powers of the judiciary and which demonstrators have for months decried as a threat to Israeli liberal democracy.

“I am calling a general strike,” Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David said in a televised address. “From the moment this press conference ends, the State of Israel stops.”

Israel's Foreign Ministry Union called on embassy staff worldwide to join the strike.

The government’s legal overhaul would significantly weaken Israel’s judiciary, which Mr Netanyahu’s far-right coalition says has too much power in the country’s politics.

Critics of the plans say the reforms would deal a fatal blow to democracy in Israel.

On Monday morning, the parliamentary constitution, law and justice committee approved the legislation for final readings despite months of high-level domestic and international opposition.

In response, demonstration leaders called for a general strike, calling it a “week of paralysis”.

Mr Netanyahu's religious-nationalist coalition government on Monday also survived a no-confidence motion filed by the opposition in protest at its judicial overhaul plan.

The motion failed by a vote of 59-53, the Knesset Speaker said.

Protests and strikes are expected across the workforce, including in health care and education.

Protesters across the country clashed with police. They blocked motorways and police used a water cannon and horses to clear one road, including the main entrance to Jerusalem.

Earlier, Mr Gallant had called publicly for a halt to the reforms, which he said posed a “tangible danger” to Israel’s national security.

According to Israeli media reports, Mr Gallant had earlier told a closed parliamentary meeting that “there is a clear identification of the situation being an opportunity [for enemies] to attack Israel”.

'Very difficult scenes'

Senior members of the country’s security establishment have raised the alarm in recent weeks after an increasing number of reservists refused to show up for duty in protest at the legal reforms.

Israeli military chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, warned the government in a public letter that he may have to cut the number of army operations because of a large number of reservists refusing to report for duty in protest over Mr Netanyahu’s judicial reforms.

Israel “has never known such days of external threats combining with an internal storm”, he wrote.

“Our enemies must know that we are standing guard and nobody is deserting. I am responsible that every mission given to you will be aimed at defending the security of Israel and its citizens.”

President Isaac Herzog has urged Mr Netanyahu to halt the process.

“Last night we witnessed very difficult scenes. I appeal to the Prime Minister, members of the government, and members of the coalition: there are harsh and painful feelings. The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, and society — all are under threat. The whole people of Israel are looking at you. The whole Jewish people are looking at you. The whole world is looking at you,” he wrote.

“For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of the necessary responsibility, I call on you to halt the legislative process immediately.”

Mr Netanyahu’s decision to sack the Defence Minister has also caused deep rifts in his far-right coalition, for which the radical judicial reforms were a centrepiece policy. Some of his coalition allies are urging him to push through with the reforms.

Senior factions in the coalition have said they will stand by Mr Netanyahu, but a minister from the far-right Otzma Yehudit party said his colleagues were not “ready to stop the legislation”.

The Religious Zionism party has said pausing the reforms would lead to “anarchy”.

Channel 12 reported that National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir threatened to quit the government, potentially bringing down Mr Netanyahu’s administration, if he did not go through with the reforms.

Heavy criticism

On Sunday, Israel’s Consul General in New York publicly resigned over the reforms. In a letter, Asaf Zamir said: “It is now time for me to take action and to join the fight for Israel’s future alongside fellow citizens.”

Mr Netanyahu has come under heavy international criticism for the judicial plans and for his far-right nature government.

Following the sacking of Mr Gallant, the Biden administration said it was “deeply concerned by the ongoing developments in Israel, which further underscore the urgent need for compromise”.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition in parliament and former prime minister, has called on Mr Netanyahu to reverse his decision to dismiss Mr Gallant.

Mr Lapid told a meeting of politicians from his Yesh Atid party that Israel could not afford to change its defence minister at this time.

“Let us go to the President's residence, and start a national dialogue at the end of which we will have a constitution based on the Declaration of Independence, and a state in which we all live together with mutual respect,” he said.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat called for coalition parties to unite behind Mr Netanyahu’s expected call to halt the overhaul legislation.

“I call on all my colleagues in the government, in Likud and the partner parties in the coalition, to unite behind the Prime Minister and support him in stopping the legislation,” Mr Barkat said.

Updated: March 27, 2023, 5:33 PM