Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dismissing protests against his government’s judicial reform plans, as huge crowds of demonstrators rallied in cities across the country for a third weekend.
Saturday’s protests drew as many as 130,000 people to central Tel Aviv, according to Israeli media, while other protests took place in the cities of Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba.
Protesters argue the new government’s attempt to give Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions will threaten democratic checks and balances on ministers by the courts.
But Netanyahu says it’s a refusal by leftist opponents to accept the results of last November’s election, which produced one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history.
In addition to the protests, pressure has built up on Netanyahu’s government after the country’s attorney general asked Netanyahu to fire a key cabinet ally following a Supreme Court ruling that disqualified him from holding a government post because of a conviction of tax offences.
While Netanyahu was expected to heed the court ruling, it only deepened the rift in the country over the judicial system and the power of the courts.
Controversial judicial reforms
The plans, which the government says are needed to curb overreach by activist judges, have drawn fierce opposition from groups including lawyers, and raised concerns among business leaders, widening already deep political divisions in Israeli society.
The protesters say the future of Israeli democracy is at stake if the plans, which would tighten government control over judicial appointments and limit the Supreme Court’s powers to review government decisions, go through.
As well as threatening the independence of judges and weakening oversight of the government and parliament, they say the plans will undermine the rights of minorities and open the door to more corruption.
“We are fighting for democracy,” said 64-year-old Amnon Miller among crowds of protesters, many bearing white and blue Israeli flags. “We fought in this country in the army for 30 years for our freedom and we won’t let this government take our freedom.”
“All generations are concerned. This is not a joke,” Lior Student, a protester, told The Associated Press. “This is a complete redefinition of democracy.”
PM’s court battle
The new government, which took office this month, is an alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud party and a clutch of smaller religious and hard-right nationalist parties that say they have a mandate for sweeping change.
Netanyahu — who is himself on trial on corruption charges that he denies — has defended the judicial reform plans, which are being examined by a parliamentary committee, saying they will restore a proper balance between the three branches of government.
Likud has long accused the Supreme Court of being dominated by left-wing judges who it says encroach on areas outside their authority for political reasons. The court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in ensuring accountability in a country that has no formal constitution to contain government action.
One protester in Tel Aviv said she thinks the judicial changes are meant to protect Netanyahu. “The aim is to save only one person and one only — this is Mr. Netanyahu, from his trial, and that’s why I’m here.”
A survey released by the Israel Democracy Institute last week showed trust in the Supreme Court was markedly higher among left-wing Israelis than among those on the right, but that there was no overall support for weakening the court’s powers.
The Current26:28Protests in Israel over proposed judicial reform