Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in central Tel Aviv on Saturday night to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to implement changes to the country’s legal system and weaken the Supreme Court – a step that critics say will destroy the country’s democracy.
The protest presented an early challenge to Netanyahu and his ultranationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, in office for just over two weeks.
Israeli media, citing police, said the crowd at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square swelled to at least 80,000 people, despite cool, rainy weather. Protesters, many covered by umbrellas, held Israeli flags and signs saying “Criminal Government”, “The End of Democracy” and other slogans.
No major unrest was reported, though Israeli media said small crowds scuffled with police as they tried to block a Tel Aviv highway.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has made the proposed changes to the country’s legal system a centrepiece of his agenda.
The changes could help Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, evade conviction, or even make his trial disappear entirely. Since being indicted in 2019, Netanyahu has said the justice system is biased against him.
His government, which includes ultra-Orthodox and far-right nationalist parties, has presented a proposal that would weaken the Supreme Court by giving parliament the power to overturn court decisions with a simple majority vote. It also wants to give parliament control over the appointment of judges and reduce the independence of legal advisers.
Netanyahu’s justice minister says unelected judges have too much power.
But opponents say the proposed changes will rob the judiciary of its independence and undermine Israeli democracy. Israeli opposition leaders, former attorney generals and the president of Israel’s Supreme Court have all spoken out against the plan.
Police beefed up their presence ahead of the march. Israeli media quoted police as saying officers had been instructed to be “very sensitive” and allow the protest to proceed peacefully but they also vowed a tough response to any vandalism or violent behaviour.
Smaller protests also took place in the cities of Jerusalem and Haifa.