TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Tens of thousands of protesters flocked to Tel Aviv and cities across Israel on Saturday to vent their opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government and its divisive plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system.
The mass protest - staged weekly since the start of the year - comes just ahead of Israel’s landmark 75th anniversary celebration. The holiday honoring Israel’s founding in 1948, meant to be a display of national unity, has been marred by one of Israel’s gravest crises in its history. Plans by Netanyahu’s government to weaken the Supreme Court have outraged Israelis who see it as an assault on their country’s system of checks and balances and a threat to its very democracy.
“This is not about so-called judicial reform, it’s about democracy,” said Sheila Katz, head of the National Council of Jewish Women, from the rally in central Tel Aviv - a sea of blue-and-white national flags. “In order for your sacred courts to protect the rights of all people, they must remain independent from politics.”
Ahead of Israel’s memorial day on Tuesday, family members of slain service members held a candelight vigil in Tel Aviv to commemorate the fallen. “We’ll defend what you’ve fallen for,” read one banner.
Crowds of Israelis also held signs marked with 75 for Israel’s birthday and banners with the words “Crime Minister” overlaid on Netanyahu’s face.
The protests have galvanized people across Israeli society. Thousands of officers in elite reserve units of the military have said they will refuse to report for duty. High-tech business leaders and the security establishment have come out against the proposal. Trade unions have called for a general strike.
President Biden, the leader of Israel’s most crucial ally, has even publicly rebuffed Netanyahu, telling him that he “cannot continue down this road.”
Furious public protests last month brought Israeli cities to a standstill and threatened to shut down the economy, compelling Netanyahu to delay the plan in hopes of finding a compromise.
“If you didn’t go out to the streets, the disaster would’ve already occurred,” Yair Lapid, head of the opposition, said at a rally Saturday in Hod Hasharon near Tel Aviv.
The pause has not persuaded the protesters, who continue to flood the streets shouting “Shame!” weeks after Netanyahu backed down, demanding that the overhaul be scrapped altogether.
The plan would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his partners in Israel’s most hardline coalition in its history the final say in appointing judges. It would also give parliament, which is controlled by Netanyahu’s allies, authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit the court’s ability to review laws.