Israelis converge in three cities to protest plans by PM Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government to "reform" judiciary — a step critics say will destroy the country's democratic system of checks and balances.
Tens of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated in three major cities against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu-led government's judicial reform plans, with organisers accusing his cabinet of undermining democratic rule weeks after his reelection.
After President Isaac Herzog appealed to polarised politicians to "lower the temperatures" of the debates, organisers of the demonstrations on Saturday — held under chilly winter rain — sought to strike a note of national unity in the country of just over nine million.
"Take an Israeli flag in one hand, an umbrella in the other, and come out to protect democracy and law in the State of Israel," said centrist ex-defence minister Benny Gantz, who attended the Tel Aviv rally but, like other opposition figures, was not due to address it.
"We Are Preserving Our Shared Home," read one demonstrator's placard. Netanyahu was guilty of a "legal putsch", said another.
Protesters braved the rain for the rally, brandishing signs with slogans decrying a "government of shame" and urging: "bring down the dictator", the AFP news agency reported.
"Bibi (Netanyahu) doesn't want a democracy, we don't need fascists in the Knesset," read one sign at the Tel Aviv protest, referring to the Israeli parliament.
Israeli media put the number in attendance at some 80,000 in Tel Aviv, with thousands more at protests in Jerusalem and Haifa.
Social media footage showed a small number of Palestinian flags on display, in defiance of Netanyahu's far-right allies. One of these, National Security Ministry Itamar Ben-Gvir, told Kan TV he wanted such flags removed but was awaiting the opinion of the attorney-general before ordering any crackdown by police.
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Israeli PM Netanyahu wants to rein in Supreme Court in what he has described as a restoration of the balance of the three branches of government. Mustafa Fatih Yavuz reports from Tel Aviv pic.twitter.com/MZpNHrGyOg— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) January 14, 2023
Arguments against reforms
Bestriding a religious-nationalist coalition with a solid parliamentary majority, Netanyahu, now in his sixth term, wants to rein in the Supreme Court in what he has described as a restoration of the balance of the three branches of government.
Critics say the proposed reforms would cripple judicial independence, foster corruption, set back minority rights and deprive Israel's courts system of credibility that helps fend off war-crimes allegations abroad. Among those opposed are the Supreme Court chief justice and the country's attorney-general.
The legal changes could help Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, evade conviction, or even make his trial disappear entirely. Since being indicted in 2019, Netanyahu has said the justice system is biased against him.
The 73-year-old Netanyahu on Friday signalled flexibility on the reform plan, saying it would be implemented "with careful consideration while hearing all of the positions".
Polls have diverged on public views of the reforms. Channel 13 TV last week found 53 percent of Israelis were opposed to changing the court appointments' structure while 35 percent were in support. But Channel 14 TV on Thursday found 61 percent in favour and 35 percent opposed.
"Tens of thousands of people were at tonight's demonstrations. In the election held here two and a half months ago, millions turned out," tweeted Miki Zohar a senior lawmaker in Netanyahu's conservative Likud party.
"We promised the people change, we promised governance, we promised reforms — and we will make good on that."
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