Tens of thousands protest Israeli government’s proposed legal system changes

Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in central Tel Aviv on Saturday night to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the legal system and weaken the Supreme Court — a step that critics say will destroy the country’s democratic system of checks and balances.

The protest presented an early challenge to Netanyahu and his ultranationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has ordered police to take tough action if protesters block roads or display Palestinian flags.

Israeli media, citing police, said the crowd at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square swelled to at least 80,000 people, despite cool, rainy weather. Protesters, many covered by umbrellas, held Israeli flags and signs saying “Criminal Government,” “The End of Democracy” and other slogans.

“They are trying to destroy the checks and balances of the Israeli democracy. This will not work,” said Asaf Steinberg, a protester from the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. And we will fight until the very last minute to save Israeli democracy.

No major unrest was reported, though Israeli media said small crowds scuffled with police as they tried to block a Tel Aviv highway.

Israeli media, citing police, said the crowd at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square had swelled to 80,000 people by 9 pm local time, despite cool, rainy weather. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has made overhauling the country’s legal system a centerpiece of his agenda.

In office for just over two weeks, his government, which comprises ultra-Orthodox and far-right nationalist parties, has launched proposals to weaken the Supreme Court by giving parliament the power to overturn court decisions with a simple majority vote.

It also wants to give parliament control over the appointment of judges and reduce the independence of legal advisers.

A group of protesters in seen in Tel Aviv on Saturday, at a larger gathering of people showing opposition to proposed judicial reforms.
Some of the protesters gathered in Tel Aviv are seen on Saturday night. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Changes undermining democracy: critics

Netanyahu’s justice minister says unelected judges have too much power. But opponents to the plans say the proposed changes will undermine Israeli democracy. Israeli opposition leaders, former attorneys general and the president of Israel’s Supreme Court have all spoken out against the plan.

The legal changes could help Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, evade conviction, or could even make his trial disappear entirely. Since being indicted in 2019, Netanyahu has said the justice system is biased against him.

Police beefed up their presence ahead of the march. Israeli media quoted police as saying officers had been instructed to be “very sensitive” and allow the protest to proceed peacefully. But they also vowed a tough response to any vandalism or violent behaviour.

Smaller protests also took place in the cities of Jerusalem and Haifa.

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