Hundreds of thousands of Israelis stopped working on Monday to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented plans to overhaul the country’s judicial system, paralyzing the country.
This followed scenes of widespread unrest on Sunday night, after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who became the first member of his Likud Party to speak out against the changes. Gallant had warned that divisions over the plans threatened Israel’s security.
Netanyahu was due to deliver a speech to the nation Monday morning, Israeli media reported, but TV stations later said those plans had been suspended. It was not clear when or even if he would speak on Monday.
The plans proposed by Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition in January would threaten the independence of the Supreme Court and limit judges’ powers, according to critics, and have faced stiff opposition with Israelis regularly taking to the streets to demonstrate.
Peter Lerner, head of international relations at Histadrut, the Israeli trade union umbrella group representing some 700,000 workers, tweeted a video of cheering activists. He said the group’s chairman, Arnon Bar David, had just told the meeting: “We are stopping the legal revolution.”
“This is the time that together we bring Israel back to sanity and to the right path. This is the time that we together say ‘enough’ and it doesn’t matter if we are right or left,” Histadrut said in a statement.
Israel’s Airport Authority confirmed just before 11 a.m. local time (4 a.m. ET) that all departing flights from Ben-Gurion Airport would be grounded.
Two of Israel’s main seaports, Haifa and Ashdod, said in separate statements seen by Reuters that they would shut down in support of the general strike.
Big brands are taking part in the protest: McDonald’s said it would begin closing its restaurants across the country from midday (5 a.m. ET) before a full national closure from 2 p.m. (7 a.m. ET).
Israel’s leading universities will also be closed Monday in protest at the Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul and at Gallant’s firing.
“We, the presidents and rectors of the research universities in Israel, express deep concern about the division and polarization in Israeli society and processes that could lead to a real damage to the national strength and stability of the State of Israel,” they said in a statement. Netanyahu’s planned changes could lead to a “brain drain” in Israel and discourage international students, the statement added.
In an interview with Piers Morgan on Talk TV released Monday, Netanyahu defended his policy and said he was confident the movement to overturn the new law would not last.
“People will see in the end that Israel was a democracy, is a democracy and will be even a stronger democracy after this democratic reform,” he said.
He argued that the changes — which allow the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, to overrule almost all Supreme Court decisions and appoint judges — were necessary to curtail the increased power of the judiciary.
Critics who call the move autocratic “had not read the bill,” he said.
Netanyahu was in London Friday to meet with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Overnight, tens of thousands protested in Tel Aviv, where demonstrators were sprayed with water canon. The cities Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem also saw unrest. At one point, crowds in Jerusalem gathered outside Netanyahu’s home and broke through a security cordon, Reuters reported.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog were among those calling for the changes to be halted.
“The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society — all are under threat,” Herzog said in a statement on Monday.
“For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of the necessary responsibility, I call on you to halt the legislative process immediately.”
International pressure was also growing over Netanyahu’s overhaul.
The White House released a statement from the National Security Council Sunday night that said the most recent protests “further underscore the urgent need for compromise.”
“As the president recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” it said.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir, announced Sunday night he would resign after 18 months in the job, over the judicial changes and and the defense minister’s firing.
“It is now time for me to join the fight for Israel’s future to ensure it remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world,” he said.