Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on trial on corruption charges, has made reforming the country’s justice system a central point of his agenda.
Tens of thousands of Israelis have gathered in three cities to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the country’s legal system and weaken the Supreme Court.
Saturday’s protests in the cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa posed an early challenge to Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has ordered police to crack down on protesters blocking roads or displaying Palestinian flags.
Israeli media, citing police, said crowds in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square had swelled to at least 80,000 people despite cool, rainy weather.
Demonstrators, many covered with umbrellas, held Israeli flags and placards reading “Criminal Government”, “The End of Democracy” and other slogans.
Social media images showed a small number of Palestinian flags, despite Ben-Gvir’s appeals.
“They are trying to destroy the checks and balances of Israeli democracy. This will not work,” said Asaf Steinberg, a protester from Herzliya, a suburb of Tel Aviv. “And we will fight to the very last moment to save Israeli democracy.”
Netanyahu, on trial on corruption charges, has made reforming the country’s justice system a central point of his agenda.
His right-wing government, in office for just over two weeks, has launched proposals to weaken the Supreme Court by giving parliament the power to overturn judicial decisions by a simple majority. It also wants to give parliament a say in the appointment of judges and reduce the independence of legal advisers.
Netanyahu’s justice minister says unelected judges have too much power.
But opponents of 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 legislative changes could help Netanyahu avoid conviction for corruption or even make his trial disappear altogether. Since being indicted in 2019, Netanyahu has said the legal system is biased against him.
The new government has also announced its intention to implement a policy of settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and implement social reforms that are of concern to members and supporters of the LGBTQ community.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, who covered the rally in Tel Aviv, said the protesters were concerned that the far-right government is threatening democracy in Israel.
“This is a protest against the government. They are concerned about rolling back the powers of the Supreme Court – a very crucial system of checks and balances that has been in place for decades,” he said.
“There is a lot of anger here against Benjamin Netanyahu, who they say is a criminal. There are many signs here saying that he is on trial and should not be the Prime Minister of Israel. They are also deeply concerned about minority rights in Israel, especially when it comes to gay rights. They are afraid that those things can be reversed.”
Thousands of people also showed up for rallies in Jerusalem and Haifa.
No major unrest was reported, although Israeli media said small crowds fought with police as they tried to block a highway in Tel Aviv.
Police reinforced their presence ahead of the march. Israeli media quoted police as saying officers had been instructed to be “very sensitive” and to allow the protest to be peaceful. But they also promised a tough response to any vandalism or violent behavior.
Opinion polls vary on public opinion of the reforms. Channel 13 TV found last week that 53 percent of Israelis were against changing the structure of court appointments, while 35 percent were in favour. But Channel 14 TV found 61 percent in favor and 35 percent against on Thursday.
“Tens of thousands of people attended tonight’s demonstrations. The elections held here two and a half months ago drew millions,” tweeted Miki Zohar, a senior lawmaker in Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party.
“We promised to change the people, we promised governance, we promised reform – and we will deliver,” he added.