JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judiciary overhaul has sparked the most intense social unrest in Israel in decades.
Tens of thousands of people have repeatedly taken to the streets against the plan – including spontaneous mass demonstrations that erupted across the country late Sunday after he fired his defense secretary for questioning the overhaul.
The unrest showed no signs of slowing down on Monday. Israel’s largest union declared a general strike – which paralyzed the country’s international airport – and thousands of people gathered outside Parliament for another day of protests. The union joins business leaders, bank bosses, fighter pilots, military reservists, academics, former security commanders and other influential sectors of society in opposing the plan.
Netanyahu delayed addressing the nation while huddled with advisers and coalition partners to determine his next move.
Here’s a look at how Israel was plunged into its deepest domestic crisis in decades:
how did we get here
Netanyahu, who is on trial on three separate corruption charges, is at the center of the political unrest that has plagued the country since 2019.
After he was indicted, Netanyahu’s former government partners turned against him, and he was unable to form a stable, lasting coalition. This led to a protracted political crisis that sent Israelis to the polls five times in less than four years.
After an 18-month political exile as opposition leader, Netanyahu returned to power late last year in a coalition with ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist allies, forming the country’s most right-wing government ever.
What is the judiciary review?
After taking power, key figures in Netanyahu’s Likud party, along with his government partners, pledged to quickly overhaul the country’s judicial system, which critics say is driven by a desire to advance their ideological agendas with less judicial oversight.
Opponents say the overhaul would upend the country’s delicate system of checks and balances. They also say Netanyahu has a deep conflict of interest in trying to transform the legal system during the trial.
The government says the law changes are necessary to streamline governance in the face of an interventionist judiciary.
What fueled the recent protests?
Israel has seen mass protests for nearly three months since Netanyahu’s confidant, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, unveiled the overhaul in January.
But the outpouring of anger over the sacking of Defense Secretary Yoav Gallant, which was quickly organized largely through messaging app WhatsApp, was chilling. In about an hour, tens of thousands of people blocked Tel Aviv’s main street and thousands more demonstrated outside Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem.
Gallant was the first cabinet minister to break ranks and publicly call for the overhaul to be delayed. Given the drop in morale and threats from soldiers not to report for duty, Gallant said pushing ahead could harm Israel’s military readiness.
In security-obsessed Israel, Gallant, a gruff retired general, is among the most respected members of the new cabinet. By attacking the man in charge of national security, Netanyahu may have crossed a red line – and unwittingly unified this deeply polarized country by touching on national security – one of the few areas of consensus.
What is the meaning of the general strike?
Israel’s largest union is one of the country’s most powerful institutions, representing nearly 800,000 people across sectors including healthcare, banking, government services, day care and transportation.
While the union has paralyzed parts of the economy in past industrial action over the years, it has never before gone on strike to protest a political issue.
The decision was felt almost immediately. Israel’s main international airport canceled all outbound flights, stranding more than 70,000 travelers. Doctors and day care workers said they would stay away from work, and others were expected to join as well.
The economy has already been hit by the protests, with the shekel currency depreciating in recent weeks. A prolonged hit could mean longer lasting and deeper damage.
What do we do now?
Hours after Netanyahu promised a nationwide speech, he remained huddled in meetings with advisers and coalition partners.
Israeli media quoted unnamed representatives of Netanyahu’s Likud party as saying he was expected to delay his plan. Levin, the justice minister who has led efforts to get the plan through parliament, said he would respect Netanyahu’s wishes if he asked for a delay. But in the afternoon there were still no decisions.
A pause would help ease tensions and buy Netanyahu some time to find a compromise. But if he backs down, he risks angering his far-right coalition partners – potentially threatening the stability of his government and risking the possibility of new elections.
Any new election would likely refocus on Netanyahu’s suitability to govern while he faces serious legal problems.