Israel’s political crisis escalated into uncharted territory Monday as the country’s largest trade union announced a “historic” strike shutting down transportation, universities, restaurants and retailers in protest against Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned judicial overhaul.
All takeoffs from Israel’s main airport, Ben Gurion Tel Aviv, were halted for several hours because of the strike. Workers at the country’s largest port in Haifa stopped working, some universities were shuttered and some of the country’s best-known retailers, including McDonald’s and the shopping mall chain Azrieli Group, announced closures.
The strikes were announced following Netanyahu’s decision on Sunday to fire his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant who became the first member of the cabinet to call for a pause in the reforms.
Massive spontaneous protests took over the Israeli city of Tel Aviv late Sunday night in response to the Gallant news, with people waving Israeli flags and chanting “democracy.” Protesters lit several fires on the main highway in the city and blocked number of streets and bridges, including the Ayalon Highway.
In his first comments since the announcement, Netanyahu urged protesters to “behave responsibly.”
“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 said on Twitter.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting for months against the planned judicial changes which would give the governing parties more control over Israel’s judiciary.
Israel’s former Prime Minister Yair Lapid urged Netanyahu to reverse the decision to fire Gallant, calling the move a “new low.” He wrote on Twitter that Netanyahu might be able to fire the minister but “cannot fire the people of Israel who are standing up to the insanity of the coalition.”
In a statement issued later, Lapid called the past 24 hours “madness,” “loss of control” and “loss of direction.”
“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. We have been taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries,” he said.
Gallant argued for a halt to the judicial reforms in a speech Saturday night, when Netanyahu was out of the country on an official visit to the United Kingdom. Some military reservists have pledged to pull out of their service in opposition to the plans, which critics say would undermine the independence of the judiciary. Gallant said pressing ahead with the proposals could threaten Israel’s security.
His ouster and the mass protests that followed prompted a string of prominent officials to call for a halt to the judicial reform process.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog called on Netanyahu and his government to immediately pause the plans.
“Deep concern hovers over the entire nation. Security, economy, society – everyone is threatened,” Herzog said in the statement.
“The eyes of all the people of Israel are on you. The eyes of all the Jewish people are on you. The eyes of the whole world are on you. For the sake of the unity of Israelis, for the sake of committed responsibility I call on you to halt the legislative procedure immediately.”
Separately, more than two dozen mayors from across Israel declared hunger strike over judicial overhaul on Monday.
Moshe Fadlon, the mayor of the coastal city of Herzliya, posted a statement saying: “Starting tomorrow morning, [we] are launching a hunger strike in Jerusalem opposite the prime minister’s office, demanding an end to the huge crisis and the disaster that Israel is hurtling towards, to prevent the security of the country being affected and for the sake of togetherness and unity of the country.”
The statement was signed by 27 officials, representing a broad spectrum of local authorities across the country.
Amid the protests, Netanyahu is under increasing pressure from his own party.
Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar and Diaspora Affairs and Social Equality Minister Amichai Chikli – all members of Netanyahu’s Likud party – also suggested that the prime minister should stop the legislation early on Monday morning.
Barkat, a former mayor of Jerusalem, suggested Netanyahu should “stop and recalculate” his overhaul plan, warning it has brought the country to the brink of civil war.
“The reform is necessary and we will do it – but not at the cost of a civil war,” he said.
In his speech on Saturday, Gallant said the pause was needed “for the security of Israel,” citing the refusal of some Israel Defense Forces reservists to train in protest at the government plans.
Gallant reiterated that sentiment in a tweet on Sunday after his dismissal: “The security of the State of Israel has always been and will always remain the mission of my life.”
Under the proposals, the government would have control over the appointment of judges, and parliament would gain the power to override Supreme Court decisions.
The government argues the changes are essential to rein in the Supreme Court, which they see as insular, elitist, and no longer representative of the Israeli people. Opponents say the plans threaten the foundations of Israeli democracy.
Part of the plan – which effectively strips the courts of the power to declare a prime minister unfit for office – has already been pushed through.
Critics say Netanyahu is pushing through the changes because of his own ongoing corruption trial; Netanyahu denies this.