Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated on Saturday against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government for judicial reform, which protesters say will threaten democratic checks and balances over the courts’ treatment of ministers.
The plans, which the Israeli government says are needed to curb activists’ bypass of judges, have sparked fierce opposition from groups including lawyers and concerns among business leaders, widening already deep political divisions in Israeli society.
“They want to turn us into a dictatorship and they want to destroy democracy, they want to destroy the judiciary, there is no democratic country without the judiciary”, the head of the Israel Bar Association, Avi Shimi said.
Benjamin Netanyahu has 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 that produced one of the most right-leaning governments in Israel’s history.
Protesters say the future of Israeli democracy is at stake if the plans are implemented, which would tighten government control over judicial appointments and limit the Supreme Court’s powers to review government decisions.
Besides threatening the independence of judges and weakening oversight of the government and parliament, protesters say the plans will undermine the rights of minorities and open the door to more corruption.
“We’re fighting for democracy… We’ve fought in this country in the army for 30 years for our freedom and we won’t let this government take our freedom,” said Amnon Miller, 64, amid crowds of protesters, many of whom carried the Israeli flag.
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 conviction in Tax issue.
The new Israeli 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, defended the judicial reform plans being considered by a parliamentary committee, saying they would restore the appropriate balance between the three powers of government.
The Likud party has long accused the Supreme Court of being dominated by left-wing judges who overstep their authority for political reasons.
Defenders of the court say it plays a vital role in ensuring accountability in a country that has no formal constitution to contain government action.
A poll published last week by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that trust in the Supreme Court increased significantly among left-wing Israelis compared to right-wing Israelis, and that Israelis in general did not support weakening the court’s powers.