Protest-hit Israel faces general strike over govt reforms
March 28, 2023 06:27 AM
The hard-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced more protests and a general strike Monday against its controversial push to overhaul the justice system.
Netanyahu was due to address the nation later Monday, a day after sacking his defence minister who had broken ranks over the divisive issue, and following President Isaac Herzog urging an immediate stop to the reform push.
Israeli media speculated that Netanyahu may temporarily back down from the reforms, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin saying he will "accept any decision that Prime Minister Netanyahu makes" on the legislation.
Israel's top trade union chief had Monday called a general strike over the package, which would weaken the powers of the judiciary and which demonstrators have for months decried as a threat to Israel's democracy.
"I am calling a general strike," Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David said in a televised address. "We have a mission to stop this legislative process and we will do it," he added, vowing to "continue to fight".
The Israel Medical Association quickly followed suit, announcing "a full strike in the health system" that will impact all public hospitals.
The stoppage was also affecting flights at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, where an AFP journalist saw multiple delayed departures.
The nationwide walkout was called hours after Herzog pressed for an immediate halt to the judicial programme, following demonstrations in Tel Aviv overnight.
"For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel... I call on you to halt the legislative process immediately," Herzog said in a statement.
The plan to hand more control to politicians and diminish the role of the Supreme Court has ignited months of protests and sparked concern from Israel's top allies including the United States.
The White House noted that President Joe Biden recently told Netanyahu that "democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship".
Netanyahu's government, a coalition between his Likud party and extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox allies, has argued the changes are needed to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.
'Everyone should strike'
Yoav Gallant, the former defence minister and staunch ally of Netanyahu, earlier called for a halt to the reforms.
"The growing social rift has made its way into the (army) and security agencies," said Gallant. "It is a clear, immediate and tangible threat to Israel's security."
Moments after Netanyahu sacked Gallant, demonstrators waving national flags blocked a central highway in the coastal city of Tel Aviv.
Rallies were also held Sunday in Jerusalem, the northern city of Haifa and Beer Sheva in the south.
Despite the upheaval, Israel's extreme-right national security minister warned the legislative process "must not be stopped".
"We must not surrender to anarchy," Itamar Ben-Gvir wrote on Twitter, amid Israeli media reports that he was threatening to quit the government if the overhaul is put on ice.
Thousands of Israelis rallied outside parliament in Jerusalem on Monday, where demonstrator Keren Mimran said "everyone should strike today".
"We are calling on the government to stop this mad reform," the 57-year-old high-tech worker told AFP.
Trevor Galor, who owns a tourism firm, said he "can't believe what's going on in Israel".
"This reform... is completely crazy, and Israel has become a very dangerous place to be in at the moment," said Galor, 52, holding an Israeli flag.
Gallant, a former general, was appointed in December as part of Netanyahu's coalition with extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox allies.
Yuli Edelstein, a Likud lawmaker who chairs the parliamentary committee for foreign affairs and defence, said "given the security situation, it's not the moment to change the minister of defence".
Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday renewed his support for Israelis "who are standing up to the insanity of the coalition".
Lawmakers are scheduled to vote this week on a central part of the proposals, which would change the way judges are appointed.
A parliamentary committee has amended the draft law to make it more acceptable to opponents, but the opposition has ruled out backing any part of the reform package until all legislative steps are halted.
Netanyahu last week vowed to "responsibly advance" the reforms and "end the rift" they have caused.
In response, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Friday accused Netanyahu of "illegal" public intervention on the process of adopting the judicial reforms.
The premier is on trial over charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.