TEL AVIV, Israel — Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in central Tel Aviv on Saturday evening to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the legal system and weaken the Supreme Court, a move that critics say would destroy the country’s democratic system of checks and balances.
The protest defied Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who ordered police to crack down on protesters blocking roads or flying Palestinian flags.
Israeli media, citing police, reported that the crowd at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square had swelled to at least 80,000 despite cool, rainy weather. The protesters, many of whom were covered by umbrellas, held Israeli flags and banners reading “Criminal Government”, “End of Democracy” and other slogans.
“They are trying to destroy the checks and balances of Israeli democracy. It won’t work,” said Asaf Steinberg, a protester from Herzliya, a suburb of Tel Aviv. “And we will fight until the very last minute to save Israeli democracy.”
There were no reports of major unrest, although Israeli media reported that a small crowd fought with police who were trying to block a highway in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, has made overhauling the country’s legal system the centerpiece of his agenda.
In office for little more than two weeks, his government, made up of ultra-Orthodox and far-right nationalist parties, has come up with proposals to weaken the Supreme Court by giving parliament the power to overrule judicial decisions by a simple majority vote. He also wants to give parliament control over the appointment of judges and reduce the independence of legal advisers.
Justice Minister Netanyahu says unelected judges have too much power. But opponents of the plans say the proposed changes would strip the judiciary of its independence and undermine Israeli democracy. Israeli opposition leaders, former attorney generals and the Chief Justice of Israel spoke out against the plan.
The legal changes could help Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, avoid conviction or even have his trial canceled entirely. After being indicted in 2019, Netanyahu said the justice system was biased against him.
The police stepped up their presence on the eve of the march. Israeli media quoted police as saying the officers were ordered to be “very sensitive” and allow the protest to pass peacefully. But they also promised to respond harshly to any vandalism or aggressive behavior.
Smaller protests also took place in the cities of Jerusalem and Haifa.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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