Half a million Israelis took to the streets in the tenth consecutive week of protests against plans by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to overhaul the country’s judicial system, organizers claimed.
Israel has a population of just over 9 million, so if organizers’ estimates are correct, about 5% of Israelis came out to voice their opposition to the proposed reforms.
Nearly half of the protesters – about 240,000 – gathered in Tel Aviv, the organizers said. In Jerusalem, several hundred demonstrators gathered in front of President Isaac Herzog’s house. They carried Israeli flags and chanted slogans including “Israel will not be a dictatorship.”
On Thursday, Herzog – whose role is largely ceremonial – urged the Netanyahu government to take the judicial overhaul legislation off the table.
Protesters and critics of Netanyahu’s plan say it would weaken the country’s courts and erode the judiciary’s ability to check the power of the country’s other branches of government.
The package of legislation would give Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority. It would also give the government the power to nominate judges, which currently rests with a committee composed of judges, legal experts and politicians. It would remove power and independence from government ministries’ legal advisers, and take away the power of the courts to invalidate “unreasonable” government appointments, as the High Court did in January, forcing Netanyahu to fire Interior and Health Minister Aryeh Deri.
Critics accuse Netanyahu of pushing the legislation in order to get out of corruption trials he is currently facing. Netanyahu denies that, saying the trials are collapsing on their own, and that the changes are necessary after judicial overreach by unelected judges.
Israel does not have a written constitution, but a set of what are called Basic Laws.
“We are done being polite,” said Shikma Bressler, an Israeli protest leader. “If the laws being suggested will pass, Israel will no longer be a democracy.”
About two out of three (66%) Israelis believe the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down laws incompatible with Israel’s Basic Laws, and about the same proportion (63%) say they support the current system of nominating judges, according to a poll last month for the Israel Democracy Institute.
“The only thing this government cares about is crushing Israeli democracy,” opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid said.
CNN’s Michael Schwartz and Matthias Somm contributed to this report