JERUSALEM (AP) — Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside parliament and workers launched a nationwide strike Monday in a dramatic escalation of the mass protest movement aimed at halting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.
But as Netanyahu remained silent, signs emerged that he would soon delay the divisive program. His national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, announced late Monday that the plan was being put on hold until the parliament’s summer session, which begins on April 30, giving time for the rival sides to seek a compromise.
The chaos shut down much of the country and threatened to paralyze the economy. Departing flights from the main international airport were grounded. Large mall chains and universities closed their doors, and Israel’s largest trade union called for its 800,000 members to stop work in health care, transit, banking and other fields.
Diplomats walked off the job at foreign missions, and local governments were expected to close preschools and cut other services. The main doctors union announced that its members would also strike.
The growing resistance to Netanyahu’s plan came hours after tens of thousands of people burst into the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at the prime minister’s decision to fire his defense minister after he called for a pause to the overhaul. Chanting “the country is on fire,” they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, closing the thoroughfare and many others throughout the country for hours.
Demonstrators gathered again Monday outside the Knesset, or parliament, turning the streets surrounding the building and the Supreme Court into a roiling sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags dotted with rainbow Pride banners. Large demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa and other cities drew thousands more.
“This is the last chance to stop this move into a dictatorship,” said Matityahu Sperber, 68, who joined a stream of people headed to the protest outside the Knesset. “I’m here for the fight to the end.”
It was unclear how Netanyahu would respond to the growing pressure. Some members of his Likud party said they would support the prime minister if he heeded calls to halt the overhaul. Israeli media, citing unnamed sources, reported that he could indeed pause it.
Ben-Gvir, who has been one of the strongest proponents of the plan, announced after meeting with the prime minister that he had agreed to a delay of at least a few weeks.
He said Netanyahu had agreed to bring the legislation for a vote when parliament reconvenes “if no agreements are reached during the recess.”
Netanyahu was expected to speak to the nation later Monday.
The plan — 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 sustained protests that have galvanized nearly all sectors of society, including its military, where reservists have increasingly said publicly that they will not serve a country veering toward autocracy.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens, however, have largely sat out the protests. Many say Israel’s democracy is tarnished by its military rule over their brethren in the West Bank and the discrimination they themselves face.
The turmoil has magnified longstanding and intractable differences over Israel’s character that have riven it since the country was founded. Protesters insist they are fighting for the soul of the nation, saying the overhaul will remove Israel’s system of checks and balances and directly challenge its democratic ideals.
The government has labeled them anarchists out to topple democratically elected leaders. Government officials say the plan will restore balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.
At the center of the crisis is Netanyahu himself, Israel’s longest-serving leader, and questions about the lengths he may be willing to go to maintain his grip on power, even as he battles charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate affairs. He denies wrongdoing.
On Monday afternoon, Netanyahu issued his first statement since he fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, urging against violence ahead of a planned counterprotest in Jerusalem organized by ultranationalist supporters of the judicial overhaul.
The counterprotest was also slated to take place outside parliament. “They won’t steal the election from us,” read a flyer for event, organized by Religious Zionist party.
“I call on all protesters in Jerusalem, right and left, to behave responsibly and not act violently,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.
The firing of Netanyahu’s defense minister at a time of heightened security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere, appeared to be a last straw for many, including apparently the Histadrut, the country’s largest trade union umbrella group, which sat out the monthslong protests before the defense minister’s firing.
“Where are we leading our beloved Israel? To the abyss,” Arnon Bar-David, the group’s head, said in a rousing speech to applause. “Today we are stopping everyone’s descent toward the abyss.”
On Monday, as the embers of the highway bonfires were cleared, Israel’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, called again for an immediate halt to the overhaul.
“The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society — all are under threat,” he said. “Wake up now!”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the crisis was driving Israel to the brink.
“We’ve never been closer to falling apart. Our national security is at risk, our economy is crumbling, our foreign relations are at their lowest point ever. We don’t know what to say to our children about their future in this country,” Lapid said.
The developments were being watched by the Biden administration, 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.
Netanyahu reportedly spent the night in consultations and was set to speak to the nation, but later delayed his speech.
The architect of the plan, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a popular party member, had long promised he would resign if the overhaul was suspended. But on Monday, he said he would respect the prime minister’s decision should he halt the legislation.
Earlier, Netanyahu’s hard-line allies pressed him to continue.
“We must not halt the reform in the judicial system, and we must not give in to anarchy,” Ben-Gvir said.
Netanyahu’s dismissal of Gallant appeared to signal that the prime minister and his allies would barrel ahead. Gallant was the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against the plan, saying the deep divisions threatened to weaken the military.
And Netanyahu’s government forged ahead with a centerpiece of the overhaul — a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments. A parliamentary committee approved the legislation on Monday for a final vote, which could come this week.
The government also seeks to pass laws that would would grant the Knesset the authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.
A separate law that would circumvent a Supreme Court ruling to allow a key coalition ally to serve as minister was delayed following a request from that party’s leader.
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.
By ILAN BEN ZION and TIA GOLDENBERG Associated Press
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv. Associated Press journalists Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv and Isaac Scharf and Sam McNeil in Jerusalem contributed to this report.