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Israel Judicial Overhaul: Unions and Reservists Renew Opposition

Union chiefs, business leaders and military reservists in Israel are warning the far-right government that proceeding with its plan to limit judicial powers without a social consensus will open the door for another wave of national strikes and business closures.

The country’s largest labor union, the Israeli medical association and thousands of military reservists have all said that they could go on strike, scale back operations or refuse to volunteer for army service if the government’s plan goes ahead.

“The option of general strike is on the table,” Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Histadrut, Israel’s largest labor union, said in a phone interview on Friday morning.

“Our responsibility is to workers’ rights,” Mr. Lerner said. “Our responsibility is to Israeli society. We called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the chaos and negotiate with the players, and that’s what we expect. If not, we have the power of the strike.”

The latest warnings set the stage for a showdown comparable to an earlier wave of social turmoil in March, when labor strikes, disquiet in the military and mass protests destabilized large parts of Israel’s economy, security services and infrastructure. The unrest shut down universities, municipal authorities, stopped departing flights from the main airport and prompted the government to suspend a previous iteration of the judicial plan.

Three months later, lawmakers in the governing coalition have once again pledged to push through part of the plan before Parliament closes for its summer recess at the end of July, prompting union leaders, senior doctors and thousands of military reservists to warn that they could withhold or limit their labor.

This looming standoff leaves Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a choice between suspending the judicial plan, which would risk angering his political allies and collapsing his coalition, or proceeding with it and drawing the wrath of powerful constituencies among the opposition.

It could also further destabilize Mr. Netanyahu’s relations with the Biden administration, which has been increasingly critical of his efforts to push through the judicial changes without social buy-in and of his government’s entrenchment of Israeli control over the occupied West Bank and its millions of Palestinian residents.

Since March, Mr. Netanyahu has suspended parts of the plan, which in the original proposals would have given the government more control over the selection of Supreme Court judges and also allowed Parliament to override the court’s decisions. But the government is still advancing a bill to limit the ways in which the court can overrule government decisions.

To government supporters, the bill enhances democracy by making elected lawmakers less beholden to unelected judges. To critics, it undermines democracy by removing some checks on government overreach. And labor activists fear that the legislation will endanger judicial protections for workers’ rights, an outcome that might prompt labor action.

The Histadrut says it represents 800,000 workers, or around a quarter of the Israeli work force, and its highly unusual collaboration with business leaders during the turmoil in March was a decisive factor in prompting Mr. Netanyahu to temporarily suspend his earlier legislative push.

Israel’s main umbrella group for businesses, the Presidium of Israeli Business Organizations, has yet to announce a shutdown of businesses, but individual business leaders have begun to take unilateral action. This week, a major chain of malls, BIG Shopping Centers, scaled back its operations for a day in protest of the judicial plan.

More than 1,700 current and former members of the Israeli Air Force reserve also signed a statement on Thursday in support of reserve pilots, navigators and other aircrews who refuse to volunteer for reserve duty if the law is passed. They joined hundreds of reserve intelligence officers and other soldiers who have already threatened to withdraw from service.

If enough reserve pilots decide to avoid service, it could limit the ability of the air force, which is much more reliant on reservists than many other major militaries.

Similar moves by reservists in March led to widespread fears within the military about Israel’s military readiness, and prompted the country’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, to speak out against the judicial plan.

The country’s largest union of doctors is also set to scale back medical operations, just as it did in March. In a leaked video of an internal meeting broadcast on Thursday by Israel’s Channel 12, the head of the country’s medical association, Zion Hagai, was recorded saying, “If this law passes, we say that we will take unique steps, significant steps.”

The report said the association would make a final decision on a strike on Monday. Dr. Hagai did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation on Friday.

These moves reflect how the government’s plan has become a totem of a longstanding rift in Israeli society: Its supporters are generally from a more right-wing background and seek to build a more nationalist and religious society, while its critics tend to have a more secular and pluralist social vision of the country.

The Supreme Court has become a symbol of that conflict because right-wing Israelis largely consider its rulings to be an obstacle to their political goals, while secular centrist and leftists usually see the court as a protector of Israel’s current social configuration.

The disagreement has led to fears of civil war between the different factions, amid a rise in physical confrontations between protesters from both sides.

Grass-roots opposition groups have announced plans for another day of disruptive demonstrations on Monday, and are expected to press their strategy of blocking roads and access to key infrastructure. Pro-government groups have called for counter-demonstrations blocking the gates of kibbutzim, rural communities traditionally dominated by secular centrists and leftists.

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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