TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Workers from a range of sectors in Israel launched a nationwide strike on Monday, threatening to paralyze the economy as they joined a surging protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.
Departing flights from the country’s main international airport were grounded, diplomats walked off the job at foreign missions, large 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 preschools they run and cut other services, and the main doctors union announced its members would also walk off the job.
The growing resistance to 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 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 thoroughfare and many others throughout the country for hours.
Thousands of protesters gathered Monday outside the Knesset, or parliament, to keep up the pressure.
“This is the last chance to stop this move into a dictatorship,” said Matityahu Sperber, 68, who joined a stream of people headed to the protest. “I’m here for the fight to the end.”
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 sustained protests that have galvanized 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.
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 turmoil has magnified longstanding and intractable differences over Israel's character that have riven it since its establishment. 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 center of the crisis is 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 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, including apparently the Histadrut, the country's largest trade union umbrella group, which had sat out the monthslong protests before the defense minister’s firing.
“Where are we leading our beloved Israel? To the abyss,” Arnon Bar-David, the group's head, said in a rousing speech to applause. “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,” 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 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 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.
The architect of the plan, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a popular party member, was long a holdout, promising 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.
Still, 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 would barrel ahead. 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.
And Netanyahu’s government forged ahead with 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, 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.
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.
Associated Press journalists Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv and Isaac Scharf and Sam McNeil in Jerusalem contributed to this report.