Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary was facing mounting opposition on Monday, with the country’s ceremonial president urging for an immediate halt to the legal changes. Universities countrywide shut their doors in protest and trade unions were expected to call for a general strike.
The growing resistance to the plan came hours after tens of thousands of people burst into the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at Netanyahu’s decision to fire his defense minister after he called for a pause to the overhaul. They lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, closing the throughway and many others throughout the country for hours.
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 a sustained and intensifying protest movement that has spread to 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.
The crisis has further divided Israel, magnifying longstanding and intractable differences that have riven the country since its establishment. The protesters say they are fighting for the very soul of the nation, seeing the overhaul as a direct challenge to Israel’s democratic ideals. The government has labelled them anarchists out to topple a democratically-elected leadership.
The crisis has also shined a light on Netanyahu himself, Israel’s longest serving leader, and the lengths he may be willing to go to maintain his grip on power, even as he battles the corruption charges. 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, prompting a new surge of opposition.
On Monday, as the embers of the highway bonfires were being cleared, Israel’s ceremonial President Isaac Herzog urged Netanyahu to immediately halt the overhaul, calling on the government to put aside political considerations for the sake of the nation.
“The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society — all are under threat,” he said. “Wake up now!”
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former ally turned rival of Netanyahu’s, said Monday that Israel was “in a landslide of losing control.”
“We haven’t been in such a dangerous situation in 50 years,” he told Israeli Army Radio.
Universities across the country said they were shutting their doors “until further notice.” A trade union umbrella group was expected to announce that it was joining the protesters and was reportedly set to launch a general strike. Israeli media reported that a lawyer representing Netanyahu 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 later Monday. Israeli media said he would halt the legislation, which could not be independently confirmed. Some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party said they would support the prime minister if he did heed calls to halt the overhaul, but the architect of it, Justice Minister Yariv Lavin, a popular party member, has said he would resign.
Netanyahu’s dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant appeared to signal that the prime minister and his allies will barrel ahead this week with the overhaul plan and the committee moving the legislation forward was meeting as planned Monday. 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.
Netanyahu’s government pledged to forge ahead with a parliamentary vote this week on a centerpiece of the overhaul — a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments. It also seeks to pass laws that would would grant parliament the authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.
A separate overhaul law that would circumvent a Supreme Court ruling to allow a key coalition ally to serve as minister was being delayed following a request from that party’s leader.
Netanyahu and his allies say 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.
But critics say the laws will remove Israel’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the governing coalition. They also say that Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because of his corruption trial.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate affairs involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and has dismissed accusations that the legal overhaul is designed to find him an escape route from the trial.
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.