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Netanyahu under pressure from protests to freeze judicial reform bill


JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced mounting pressure Monday to halt his government’s drive to remake Israel’s judicial system as the backlash against the plan engulfed the country and strikes threatened national paralysis.

Israeli universities, workers’ unions, malls and hospitals announced a general strike, and the international airport indefinitely terminated outgoing flights. Local council leaders began gathering in front of the prime minister’s residence to begin what they said would be a hunger strike until the reform push was halted.

As calls for Netanyahu to stand down came from across the government, business and the opposition, including from Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu’s own longtime lawyer, local media reported he would make a public statement Monday morning.

Netanyahu fires defense minister who called for halt to judicial overhaul

An official in Netanyahu’s Likud party who requested anonymity due to ongoing negotiations said that earlier this morning, the prime minister was ready to bow to pressure and halt the reforms. Other Likud officials suggested the move might be frozen at least until the Passover holiday and the parliamentary recess next month, Israeli media reported. But the announcement was postponed amid reports that the prime minister had entered emergency consultations with his coalition partners.

One of his most extreme right-wing allies, Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir warned the prime minister by tweet not to “surrender to anarchy.” Netanyahu’s government holds a four-seat majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party could bring down the government and force new elections if he pulled out of the coalition.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat, a former mayor of Jerusalem, called for coalition members to allow Netanyahu to pause the reform so the government would not collapse.

“I call on all my colleagues in the government, in Likud and the partner parties in the coalition, to unite behind the prime minister and support him in stopping the legislation,” Barkat said in a statement.

Events unfolded Monday at a breakneck pace. Once again, crowds rushed to demonstrate in the front of the Knesset in Jerusalem and to block traffic on Tel Aviv highways. Fears of violent clashes rose as Netanyahu allies called for their supporters to also hit the streets.

“The elections will not be stolen!” tweeted Likud Knesset Member Simcha Rothman, a key architect of the plan. “The people demand a radical overhaul of the justice system.”

One far-right group known for violence, a Jerusalem soccer fan club known as “La Familia,” said it would travel to center of anti-coalition protests in Tel Aviv.

Every hour brought announcement of new strikes and work stoppages.

Netanyahu’s political touch eludes him as Israel spirals into chaos

Israel’s main doctors union said its members would suspend non-emergency health care services. The country’s largest shopping centers closed across the country and fast-food giant McDonald’s said its stores would begin closing all branches starting from 12 p.m.

The spreading chaos came the morning after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, the first member of his cabinet to break with the coalition and call for a halt to the judicial legislation. The nighttime dismissal rocked a country already in turmoil, ratcheting up the backlash to an excruciating pitch.

Within minutes, protesters rushed into streets around the country, vowing to escalate demonstrations and public strikes until the legislative drive is frozen. Police clashed with protesters at several sites, using water cannons, cavalry and other unusually aggressive tactics to push thousands of demonstrators who blocked Ayalon Highway and who massed outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence.

Israel’s consul general in New York resigned in a tweet, and Herzog, the ceremonial president, pleaded with the prime minister and the coalition to stop their legislative push with the nation on the edge of catastrophe.

“The security, the economy, the society, everything is threatened,” Herzog said in a statement. “The eyes of all the people of Israel are turned to you.”

Netanyahu’s lawyer and close confident, Boaz Ben Zur, informed the prime minister that he would not continue to represent him in his corruption trial, Israeli media reported Monday morning.

Hard-liners in Netanyahu’s coalition — which includes ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist settler parties — have continued to push the legislation even as opposition has swelled. On Monday, hours before Netanyahu spoke, a parliamentary committee passed a key element of the plan, a bill that would give the coalition greater control over the selection of judges.

“We don’t need to destroy the country,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said at the start of his party meeting in the Knesset on Monday morning, in which he called on Netanyahu to stop the legislation and enter negotiations under the supervision of the president.

The coalition’s judicial overhaul package would give them greater power to handpick judges, including those presiding over Netanyahu’s corruption trial, in which he is charged in three separate cases and faces potential jail time. Proponents say the changes — long sought by Israel’s growing right wing — are needed because the courts have become too powerful at the expense of elected officials and are hopelessly biased toward the country’s left-wing elite.

Opponents say the moves are an attempt to eliminate one of the only checks on the coalition’s power, a shift that would allow it to make radical changes to society and tilt the country toward authoritarianism.

The plan, announced without warning soon after Netanyahu’s new government took power at the end of December, forced the country to confront long-simmering questions over prioritizing its democratic character or its Jewish one.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.