Hundreds of thousands of Israelis stopped work Monday to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented plans to overhaul the country’s judicial system, bringing the country to a standstill.
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 reforms. Gallant had warned that divisions over the plans threatened Israel’s security.
Netanyahu was due to address the nation on Monday morning, Israeli media reported, but television stations later said those plans had been put on hold. It was not clear when or even if he would speak on Monday.
Plans proposed by Netanyahu’s far-right coalition in January would threaten the independence of the Supreme Court and limit the powers of judges, critics say, and have faced strong opposition with Israelis regularly taking to the streets to demonstrate.
Peter Lerner, head of international relations for Histadrut, the Israeli union group that represents some 700,000 workers, tweeted a video of cheering activists. He said that the group’s president, Arnon Bar David, had just said at the meeting: «We are stopping the legal revolution.»
“This is the moment when together we will bring Israel back to sanity and the right path. This is the moment when we say ‘enough’ together and it doesn’t matter if we are from the right or from the left,” Histadrut said in a statement.
The Israel Airports Authority confirmed just before 11 a.m. local time (4 a.m. ET) that all flights departing from Ben-Gurion Airport would be grounded.
Big brands are getting in on the protest: McDonald’s said it would begin closing its restaurants nationwide starting at noon (5 a.m. ET) before a full national shutdown starting at 2 p.m. (7 a.m. ET).
Israel’s main universities will also close on Monday in protest of the reforms and Gallant’s dismissal.
«We, the presidents and rectors of research universities in Israel, express our deep concern about the division and polarization in Israeli society and the processes that could lead to real damage to the national strength and stability of the State of Israel.» they said in a statement. Netanyahu’s planned reforms could lead to a «brain drain» in Israel and discourage international students, the statement added.
Overnight, tens of thousands protested in Tel Aviv, where protesters were sprayed with water cannons. The cities Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem also experienced riots. At one point, crowds in Jerusalem gathered outside Netanyahu’s home and broke through a security cordon, Reuters reported.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog was among those calling for a halt to the reforms.
“The entire nation is engrossed in deep concern. Our security, economy, society, they are all under threat,» Herzog said in a statement Monday.
«For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of the necessary accountability, I ask you to stop the legislative process immediately.»
International pressure was also mounting on Netanyahu’s reforms.
The White House issued a National Security Council statement Sunday night that said the latest protests «further underscore the urgent need for engagement.»
“As the president recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been and must continue to be a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” he said.
Israel’s Consul General in New York, Asaf Zamir, announced Sunday night he would resign after 18 months in office, due to judicial reforms and the dismissal of the defense minister.
“The time has come to join the fight for the future of Israel to ensure that it remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world,” he said.