Israel's judicial overhaul delayed after mass protests and strikes

By Helen Regan, Adam Renton, Rob Picheta, Ed Upright, Aditi Sangal, Ivana Kottasová and Jack Guy, CNN

Updated 5:57 p.m. ET, March 27, 2023
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9:02 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023

Here's who is on strike in Israel

From CNN's Rob Picheta and Amir Tal

Passengers look at the monitor displaying delayed flights at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 27.
Passengers look at the monitor displaying delayed flights at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 27. (Oren Ziv/AP)

Israel has been brought to a standstill by a "historic" general strike, as anger and unrest at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to weaken the judiciary peaked.

Nurses, airport workers and many more have reduced their hours or walked out.

The initial strike action was called by Histadrut, Israel's largest trade union federation, and has been joined or supported by workers in multiple sectors.

The federation said critical services such as hospitals, firefighters and the electric company would operate on a Saturday schedule. Food establishments and day care centers will operate as usual and public transportation will continue to run. 

“Actions that could endanger human life and the security of the country will not be taken,” Histadrut added.

“Stop this judicial process before it is too late,” the federation's leader Arnon Bar-David said, addressing Netanyahu directly as he called the strike.

  • Government: Employees at the local level walked out in cities across Israel, as did public sector workers in national ministries, according to Histadrut.
  • Health care: Nurses will walk out Tuesday, in a move announced by the Israeli Nurses Association. Dozens of hospitals and medical centers have joined the strike.
  • Finance: Israel's central bank and its stock exchange are among the organizations striking, Histadrut said, along with several individual banks.
  • Transport: Israel’s main airport, Ben Gurion Tel Aviv, announced an immediate halt to all take-offs on Monday. They resumed a few hours later. Workers at Israel's ports are also on strike, as are railway workers.
  • Education: Universities were one of the first sectors to announce a strike, with facilities across the country closed.
  • Culture: Museums have closed their doors, as have private entertainment companies like the Israel Film Industry Association, according Histadrut.
  • Retail: The Azrieli Group, a chain of shopping malls, has closed its doors.
  • Restaurants: McDonald's is closing all its restaurants across Israel, the company said on Monday.
8:04 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023

Netanyahu's government is attempting to turn Israel into a "dictatorship," former PM says

From CNN's Rob Picheta

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is "trying to make Israel a dictatorship," according to the country's former leader Ehud Barak, in a blistering attack against the man he once served in Cabinet.

“It’s the most severe crisis we have had in Israel in the last 75 years," Barak, who was Israeli prime minister between 1999 and 2001, said at an event hosted by London think tank Chatham House. "It’s a threat to our democracy and our way of life."

Barak replaced Netanyahu as Israel's leader and later served as his defense minister for four years. But he attacked his former boss's new, right-wing government, saying it "acts blatantly illegitimately in what it is doing."

"We are defending democracy against those who are using the very tools that democracy gives and the very freedom that it bestows upon its citizens in order to destroy it from within," Barak said.

"We call it regime change from top down. They are trying to make Israel a dictatorship. We are not going to accept it. This is not going to fit into our basic values and collective psyche.”

His intervention came as protests and strikes swept the country, amid an outpouring of anger over Netanyahu's efforts to weaken the judiciary.

9:11 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023

Israel embassy in Washington, DC, closes Monday to join strike

From CNN's Alex Marquardt and Kylie Atwood

Israel's embassy in Washington, DC, “will be closed today until further notice and no consular services will be provided," the embassy's spokesperson tweeted Monday.

The embassy staff were instructed to go on strike by Histadrut, Israel’s largest trade union federation. Asked if Ambassador Michael Herzog is joining the strike, the embassy spokesperson said he “follows the union’s instructions.”

Some background: The temporary shuttering of Israel’s embassy in Washington – with other missions in the US and around the world expected to follow suit – is an extraordinary act of protest in response to a domestic political dispute. Israeli diplomats told CNN they don't recall any other time that the embassy was closed due to a political crisis at home. 

Whether or not the diplomats join any public protests is unclear. Typically diplomats are not allowed to join political protests. 

9:18 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023

Netanyahu calls on all demonstrators to “behave responsibly and not to act violently”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen in Berlin on March 16.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen in Berlin on March 16. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images/FILE)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on protesters in Jerusalem to behave responsibly and “not to act violently.”

“I call on all the demonstrators in Jerusalem, on the right and the left, to behave responsibly and not to act violently. We are brotherly people," he said in a post on Twitter.

Netanyahu is yet to address the country directly as chaos swept Israel on Monday, beyond his tweet.

7:45 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023

Protesters flock to Israeli streets on Monday, demanding end to judiciary overhaul

Protesters outside the Knesset on Monday.
Protesters outside the Knesset on Monday. Umbrella Movement of Resistance against Dictatorship

The protests that have been raging across Israel for months escalated over the weekend and continued into Monday, when strikes across multiple industries also brought much of the country to a halt.

Crowds of Israelis made their way to the Knesset in Jerusalem, demanding an end to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's efforts to overhaul the judiciary, which some say threaten the country’s democratic foundations.

Women attend a demonstration in Jerusalem on March 27.
Women attend a demonstration in Jerusalem on March 27. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Israelis protest near the Supreme Court during a demonstration on March 27 in Jerusalem.
Israelis protest near the Supreme Court during a demonstration on March 27 in Jerusalem. (Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters)

Others gathered at the Supreme Court waving Israeli flags, an ever-present symbol at the demonstrations.

In Tel Aviv, crowds spilled into roads and stopped traffic, aerial footage showed.

Workers across several sectors also walked out in a general strike called by Israel's largest union.

An aerial view shows thousands of Israelis protesting as they block Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 27.
An aerial view shows thousands of Israelis protesting as they block Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 27. (Harel Ben Nun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

7:26 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023

Hardline Israeli justice minister opens door to judicial overhaul delay

From CNN’s Amir Tal in Jerusalem

Israel’s Justice Minister Yariv Levin, one of the most forceful advocates of judicial overhaul, opened the door to the possibility of delaying the legislation, warning that lawlessness could bring the government down. 

“I will respect any decision that Prime Minister Netanyahu makes regarding legal reform legislative procedures,” said Levin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party. “This is with the knowledge that a situation in which everyone does what he feels like, may immediately lead to the fall of the government and the collapse of the Likud.

The controversial legislation sparked unprecedented nationwide strikes on Monday, after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for advocating a delay in passing the laws. 

6:23 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023

More than two dozen Israeli mayors declare hunger strike over judicial overhaul

From CNN’s Lianne Kolirin 

More than two dozen mayors from across Israel went on a hunger strike Monday in Jerusalem, protesting against the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, they announced. 

“We, the mayors of local authorities from all sides of the political spectrum, starting tomorrow morning, are launching a hunger strike in Jerusalem opposite the prime minister’s office, demanding an end to the huge crisis and the disaster that Israel is hurtling towards, to prevent the security of the country being affected and for the sake of togetherness and unity of the country," Moshe Fadlon, the mayor of the coastal city of Herzliya, posted statement from himself and his protesting colleagues Sunday night.

The statement was signed by 27 officials, representing a broad spectrum of local authorities across the country.

5:53 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023

Workers at Israel's biggest port join "historic" strike

From CNN’s Michael Schwartz in Jerusalem

Workers at Haifa port -- the largest in Israel -- have joined the strikes that have brought much of the country to a standstill, the port's spokesperson Zohar Arnon told CNN Monday.

“Our workers have stopped,” Arnon said. “They are still in the port waiting for developments.”

The port in the northern Israeli city of Haifa is one of the country's main hubs. Earlier on Monday, Israel’s main airport, Ben Gurion Tel Aviv, announced an immediate halt to all departing flights.

The Azrieli Group, a large chain of Israeli malls, also announced Monday it is also closing in support of the strikes. “We must not stand by when Israel is burning," its chairman Dana Azrieli said in a statement.

And McDonald’s has closed all of its restaurants across the country, the company announced on Twitter Monday.

The action is part of what Israel’s largest union federation called a “historic” general strike on Monday, intended to heighten pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt his judicial overhaul.

“Stop this judicial revolution, this craziness,” Histadrut union federation leader Arnon Bar-David told Netanyahu in a televised speech.

4:40 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023

"We've never been closer to falling apart": Ex-PM Lapid tells Netanyahu's party to "stop this madness"

From CNN’s Hadas Gold in Jerusalem

(Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)
(Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

Israel’s former Prime Minister Yair Lapid has called on Benjamin Netanyahu's government to halt its judicial overhaul, telling the Knesset that the country has been "taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries."

What's happened here in the past 24 hours is madness, it is a loss of control and a loss of direction," Lapid said.

"It is proof that this government has lost its brakes. It is a danger to the State of Israel, it is a danger to the security of Israel. Our home is in danger," he added.

Lapid called on Netanyahu to reverse his decision to fire Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, and told lawmakers "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. We have been taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries," said Lapid, who served as prime minister for five months before Netanyahu returned to power following November's election.

"It's almost too late, but it isn't too late yet. There are enough decent people in the Likud who can and should stop this madness," he said.

"In the history of a country there are rare moments when the government must decide if it’s here to build or to destroy, to unite or to divide," Lapid continued. "This is one of those moments. I call on the government, on the Likud, get a grip, stop the legislation and come talk."