TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated on Saturday against judicial reform plans for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, which protesters say will threaten democratic checks and balances on ministers administered by the courts.
The plans, which the government says are needed to curb the overreach of activist judges, have drawn fierce opposition from groups including lawyers, and raised concerns among business leaders, widening already deep political divisions in Israeli society.
“They want to turn us into a dictatorship, they want to destroy democracy,” said the head of the Israeli Bar Association, Avi Shimi. “They want to destroy the judiciary, there is no democratic country without the judiciary.”
Netanyahu dismissed the protests, now in their third week, as a refusal by opponents of the left to accept the results of last November’s elections, which produced one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history.
Protesters say the future of Israeli democracy is at stake if the government succeeds in moving forward with the plans, which would tighten political control over judicial appointments and limit the Supreme Court’s powers to overturn government decisions or Knesset laws.
Besides 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 Amnon Miller, 64, amid crowds of protesters, many carrying white and blue Israeli flags. We have fought in this country in the army for 30 years for our freedom and we will not let this government take our freedom.”
Saturday’s protests, which Israeli media said were expected to draw more than 100,000 people to central Tel Aviv, come days after the Supreme Court ordered Netanyahu to sack Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads the religious Shas party, over his recent tax conviction.
The new government, which took office this month, is an alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud party and a group of smaller religious and far-right parties that say they have a mandate for sweeping change.
Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies, has defended the judicial reform plans, which are currently being studied by a parliamentary committee, saying they would restore the proper balance between the three branches of government.
Likud politicians have long accused the Supreme Court of being controlled by left-wing judges who say they encroach on areas outside their jurisdiction for political reasons. Defenders of the court say it plays a vital role in holding government to account in a country where there is no formal constitution.
A poll released last week by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that trust in the Supreme Court was significantly higher among left-wing Israelis than on the right, but there was no overall support for weakening the court’s powers.
(Reporting by Emily Rose). Written by James Mackenzie; Editing by David Holmes and Andrew Heavens
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