TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in three major cities on Saturday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for judicial reform, with organizers accusing him of undermining democratic governance weeks after he won re-election.
Netanyahu, who leads a national-religious coalition with a strong parliamentary majority, wants to rein in the Supreme Court in what he has described as restoring the balance of the three branches of government.
Critics say the proposed reforms would hinder judicial independence, foster corruption, stifle minority rights and deny Israel’s court system the credibility that helps fend off allegations of war crimes committed abroad. Among the opponents are the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the country’s attorney general.
After President Isaac Herzog implored polarizing politicians to “lower the heat” in the debates, organizers of the demonstrations – which took place under the cold winter rain – sought to express a note of national unity.
Centrist former defense minister Benny Gantz, who attended the Tel Aviv rally, said like other opposition figures, it was not to be countered.
One protester’s banner read, “We preserve our common home.” Another said Netanyahu was guilty of a “legal coup”.
Israeli media put the number at around 80,000, with thousands more at protests in Jerusalem and Haifa.
Footage on social media showed a small display of Palestinian flags in defiance of Netanyahu’s far-right allies. One of those, National Security Ministry Itamar Ben Gvir, told Kan television that he wants these flags removed but is waiting for the public prosecutor’s opinion before ordering any crackdown by the police.
The 73-year-old Netanyahu on Friday signaled flexibility on the reform plan, saying it would be implemented “with careful consideration while listening to all positions.”
Polls differed on public views of the reforms. Channel 13 TV last week found that 53% of Israelis oppose changing the structure of appointments in the courts, while 35% support it. But Channel 14 TV on Thursday found 61% in favor and 35% opposed.
Critics of the Supreme Court say it is overreaching and unrepresentative of the electorate. Its supporters advocate the court as a means of balancing a divided society.
“Tens of thousands of people took part in tonight’s demonstrations. In the elections held here two and a half months ago, millions turned out,” Miki Zohar, a senior lawmaker in Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, wrote on Twitter.
“We promised people change, we promised governance, we promised reforms – and we will.”
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Christina Fincher and Mark Potter
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