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

Thomas Helm

The National  /  March 27, 2023

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s future hung in the balance as he delayed his much-anticipated 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 is being pressed to pause the judicial overhaul after overnight protests in which 600,000 people took to the streets across the country.

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.

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.”

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 that 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 healthcare and education.

Haim Bibas, chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities, said that municipalities and local councils would join the general strike alongside the Histadrut, Israel’s largest labour union. Dozens of local council heads are expected to go on hunger strike on Monday morning outside Mr Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence to “halt the crisis in the country, to prevent a security disaster and to work for Israel’s unity”.

Clashes with police took place across the country after Mr Netanyahu fired the country’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday.

Protesters blocked key motorways. Police used a water cannon and horses to clear one road.

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 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 been raising the alarm in recent weeks that an increasing number of reservists are refusing to show up for duty in protest at the legal reforms.

Israeli military chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, reportedly warned the government 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 at Mr Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, according to The New York Times.

“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.

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem Correspondent at The National