JERUSALEM — Tens of thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv on Saturday night against the new right-wing government’s plans to fundamentally overhaul the judiciary system, accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of trying to shut down the country’s democratic institutions just weeks after he returned to power weaknesses.
The protest was organized by grassroots activists and supported by the leaders of Israel’s centrist and left-wing opposition parties. Israeli news media estimated the turnout of 80,000 people by 8:30 p.m., despite persistent rain, and thousands more joined the protests in Jerusalem and Haifa.
The protests were an early sign of the backlash facing the government, the sixth led by Mr Netanyahu, and a clear example of the growing political division and polarization in Israel.
Barely three weeks after swearing in his government, Mr Netanyahu is trying to limit the powers of the country’s Supreme Court and has argued that the Supreme Court has too much leverage.
Critics say the move is a power grab that would limit the independence and control of the judiciary and give politicians the upper hand in appointing judges and prosecutors.
Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister and former army chief of staff who attended the Tel Aviv protests, said Mr Netanyahu’s proposals would “smash” the justice system.
“We will not allow that,” he said on Israeli television.
In and around Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, many of the demonstrators carried umbrellas or placards. But others carried Israeli flags, the symbol of the modern Jewish state whose liberal democracy they say is under threat.
Uri Kinrot, a resident of Beersheba, a town in the southern Negev desert, came to the Tel Aviv demonstration with his three young children. “I’m here for myself, of course, but mainly for them,” he said, “to fight for them to be able to grow up in a democratic country that offers them equality and equal opportunities.”
Mr Kinrot held a sign that read: “We are the Fortress. We will not fall!” He said he was there to stop what he called a “dictatorship” taking over Israel.
Other demonstrators held placards with harsh messages warning of “fascism,” a “coup d’état” and corruption. Netanyahu is currently on trial on corruption charges. A sign read: “We will die before we give up democracy.”
The ruling coalition, led by Mr Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party, includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties. Widely regarded as the most right-wing and religiously conservative coalition in Israel’s history, it won a 64-seat majority in the November elections in the 120-seat parliament.
Changes the government is proposing include curtailing the Supreme Court’s judicial oversight, including removing the ability to strike down laws it deems inappropriate. The government also wants to change the way judges are elected, turning legal advisers in ministries into political officials who would no longer report to the attorney general.
The government is working swiftly to push through its reforms while the Supreme Court considers a petition to overturn the appointment of Aryeh Deri, a convicted felon, as a senior minister on the grounds of “inappropriateness”. Mr Deri, a veteran politician and close ally of Netanyahu, was recently convicted of tax fraud and given a suspended sentence under a plea deal.
Many Israelis believe there is room for carefully coordinated reform. But critics of the government say such sweeping steps will transform Israel into a democracy in name only. They argue the changes will remove the protections the court provides for minorities and put too much power in the hands of the government.
Israel has no formal constitution and only one House of Parliament, and the judicial plans have roused the opposition. Former prime minister and centrist opposition leader in parliament Yair Lapid has called the proposed changes “extreme regime change” that would lead to the destruction of Israeli democracy.
In an extraordinarily candid speech on Thursday, Supreme Court President Chief Justice Esther Hayut said Mr Netanyahu’s plan was aimed at “dealing a fatal blow to the independence of the judiciary and silencing it”.
The new Likud Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, criticized Judge Hayut’s speech in a televised statement, accusing her of joining activists in their call to “set the streets on fire”.
Mr Netanyahu released a video statement on Friday saying Israeli voters had given the government a clear mandate to implement judicial reform and called for calm. The new rules would be made “responsibly and sensibly,” he said, and after an agreement was reached in Parliament.
The protests on Saturday were also a test for the police.
The minister overseeing the police, ultra-nationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir, had called for arrests and the use of water cannons against protesters blocking roads, although such operational decisions always fell within the purview of senior police commanders on the ground.
Police commanders said they were determined to allow peaceful protests and that police are only expected to intervene when protesters are threatening the peace or breaking the law. At the end of the protest, a few hundred demonstrators blocked a main intersection in Tel Aviv and tried to reach a main thoroughfare. The police contained them without resorting to water cannons.
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Jonathan Rosen contributed reporting from Jerusalem.