Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm on Monday as the country was caught in turmoil over the government’s contentious plan to overhaul the judicial system.
“I call on protesters from the right and left to act responsibly and not to use violence,” the prime minister said in a statement which came hours after a general strike was announced as part of the protests against the overhaul plan.
The overhaul, proposed by the ruling coalition and aimed at curbing judicial power, has bitterly divided the country for weeks, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in demonstrations and blocking major highways across Israel.
Earlier in the day, Israel’s top trade union Histadrut, which represents 800,000 workers from infrastructures, banking, transportation, health and other sectors, declared a general strike.
Answering the union’s call, the Israel Airports Authority canceled all departures at the Ben Gurion International Airport, affecting a total of 36,500 passengers.
Factories, banks, shopping malls and local authorities participating in the strike also shut down services. Meanwhile, the Israeli Medical Association announced a one-day strike at all public hospitals and community clinics.
At noon, the Azrieli Group and BIG Group, two of Israel’s largest mall chains, joined the strike and shut down dozens of their shopping centers across the country.
Israel’s state-owned Kan TV reported that Netanyahu had scheduled to announce a suspension of the overhaul plan, but canceled the announcement after his justice minister, Yariv Levin, who leads the reforms, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, his national security minister, threatened to resign.
Ben-Gvir, leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Power party and a key partner in the coalition government, said in a statement that he would quit the coalition if the reform plan was frozen, a move that would cause the coalition to lose its parliamentary majority and possibly lead to new elections.
Netanyahu’s office has not yet announced a new schedule for the announcement.
The government’s plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary and weaken the Supreme Court has sparked an uproar and massive protests since the government was sworn in in December. For weeks, Israel faced the largest protests in the country in decades. The country’s leading businesspersons, legal experts, and security officials have called on Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul.
Late on Sunday, Netanyahu announced he had dismissed Defense Minister Yoav Gallant after he called the government to temporarily halt the contentious plan and hold talks with opposition parties about the reforms. He was the first minister in the cabinet and senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party to break ranks.
The sack of Gallant triggered fresh round of protests across the country that night, with tens of thousands of people bursting onto streets in a rare show of defiance. One demonstration blocked the Ayalon Highway, Israel’s main freeway, for about nine hours until the police dispersed them with water cannons.
Late at night, Simcha Rothman, a coalition lawmaker and chairman of the parliament committee which prepares the bills of the overhaul plan, announced his committee would continue advancing the legislation as planned.
In the morning, as the barricades on Ayalon Highway were cleared, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose position is largely ceremonial, issued a plea, urging Netanyahu to immediately suspend the overhaul. He called on the ministers to put aside political considerations and prioritize the interests of the nation.
“The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society — all are under threat. The whole people of Israel are looking at you,” he said in a statement.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the crisis was putting Israel in chaos. “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, and we don’t know what to say to our children about their future in this country,” he said. “We have been taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries.”
Netanyahu says the overhaul is needed in order to curb the “overly activist” Supreme Court.
Critics of the overhaul plan worry that Netanyahu, who is on trial for fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes, is in a conflict of interests. ■