TEL AVIV, Jan. 14 (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in three major cities on Saturday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reform plans, with organizers accusing him of undermining democratic rule weeks after his re-election.
Netanyahu, now in his sixth term, battling a religious-nationalist coalition with a solid parliamentary majority, wants to rein in the Supreme Court in what he has described as rebalancing the three branches of government.
Critics say the proposed reforms would erode the independence of the judiciary, promote corruption, curtail minority rights and deprive the Israeli justice system of the credibility that helps fend off allegations of war crimes abroad. Opponents include the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the country’s attorney general.
After President Isaac Herzog appealed to polarized politicians to “turn down the temperatures” of the debates, organizers of the demonstrations – held under chilly winter rain – sought to achieve a tone of national unity.
“Take an Israeli flag in one hand, an umbrella in the other, and come out to protect democracy and justice in the State of Israel,” said ex-Defense Secretary Benny Gantz, who hosted the rally in Tel Aviv attended, but like other opposition figures, was not due to the address.
“We keep our shared home,” one protester’s sign read. Netanyahu engaged in a “legal coup,” another said.
Israeli media estimate the attendance at some 80,000, with thousands more at protests in Jerusalem and Haifa.
Social media images showed a small number of Palestinian flags, in defiance of Netanyahu’s far-right allies. One of them, the Ministry of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, told Kan TV that he wanted such flags removed but was waiting for the advice of the Attorney General before ordering a police crackdown.
Netanyahu, 73, showed flexibility over the reform plan on Friday, saying it would be implemented “with careful consideration while all views are heard.”
Opinion polls vary on public opinion on the reforms. Channel 13 TV found last week that 53% of Israelis opposed a change to the court’s appointment structure, while 35% supported it. But Channel 14 TV found 61% in favor and 35% against on Thursday.
Critics of the Supreme Court say it stretches too far and is not representative of the electorate. The proponents call the court a means of bringing balance to an unstable society.
“Tens of thousands of people attended tonight’s demonstrations. Millions turned out in the elections held here two and a half months ago,” tweeted Miki Zohar, a senior lawmaker in Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party.
“We have promised change to the people, we have promised governance, we have promised reform – and we will deliver.”
Written by Dan Williams; Edited by Christina Fincher and Mark Potter
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.