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Thousands of Israelis have attended a protest against the Netanyahu government

Israelis protest against the government's plans to overhaul the country's legal system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023. The new government unveiled its plan this month proposing changes that critics say will weaken the country's judiciary and imperil its democratic system of checks and balances.
Oded Balilty
/
AP
Israelis protest against the government's plans to overhaul the country's legal system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023. The new government unveiled its plan this month proposing changes that critics say will weaken the country's judiciary and imperil its democratic system of checks and balances.

TEL AVIV, Israel — 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 overhaul the legal system and weaken the Supreme Court — a step that critics say will destroy the country's democratic system of checks and balances.

The protest presented an early challenge to Netanyahu and his ultranationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has ordered police to take tough action if protesters block roads or display Palestinian flags.

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.

"They are trying to destroy the checks and balances of the Israeli democracy. This will not work," said Asaf Steinberg, a protester from the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. "And we will fight until the very last minute to save the Israeli democracy."

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 overhauling the country's legal system a centerpiece of his agenda.

In office for just over two weeks, his government, which is comprised by ultra-Orthodox and far-right nationalist parties, has launched proposals to 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 to the plans 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.

The legal 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.

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 behavior.

Smaller protests also took place in the cities of Jerusalem and Haifa.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press