Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied outside the country’s parliament on Monday to protest against the hardline new government’s controversial plan to curb the powers of the judiciary.
The demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, which police said drew 70,000 people, is the latest in a string of huge street protests triggered by the plan, and came as lawmakers from Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government voted to put the first batch of reforms to parliament.
Monday’s protest followed a plea for compromise from President Isaac Herzog, who warned during an unusually blunt address on Sunday that the polarisation sparked by the proposed judicial overhaul had brought Israel to “the brink of constitutional and social collapse”.
“I feel — we all feel — that we are barely a moment before a clash, even a violent clash,” he said, urging the government to delay its overhaul to allow for talks with its opponents. “This powder keg is about to explode.”
In a sign of the tensions surrounding the overhaul, the committee meeting on Monday to send the first batch of proposals to parliament took place in a raucous atmosphere, with government and opposition MPs trading barbs, and several MPs being ejected.
Netanyahu and his allies argue that the changes advanced on Monday — which will give the government control over judicial appointments and bar the top court from striking down Israel’s quasi-constitutional “Basic Laws” — are needed to rein in an overly activist judiciary.
They have also dismissed the protests as a sign of their opponents’ refusal to accept the results of last year’s election, which returned Netanyahu to power at the head of a coalition with ultranationalists and ultrareligious groups widely regarded as the most rightwing in Israel’s history.
“I call on the leaders of the opposition: Stop it. Stop dragging the country into anarchy,” Netanyahu said in a statement on Twitter. “Most people don’t want anarchy. They want a substantive discourse, and in the end, they want unity.”
However, critics see the proposals as a fundamental threat to Israeli democracy, that would leave the government in a position of unchecked power, pave the way for the erosion of minority rights, foster corruption and damage the country’s attractiveness to investors.
In the throng outside the Knesset on Monday, where crowds chanted “democracy” and brandished placards with slogans such as “Netanyahu: what legacy will you leave?”, protesters expressed fears that the reforms could fundamentally alter the nature of the Israeli state.
“I’m here because this is the last line before we lose our democracy. We’re all kind of dreading this reform” said Zvi Simons, a student in Jerusalem. “The chain reaction that it’ll start will be catastrophic.”
His friend Michal Khaimov said she was worried about what the proposed changes would enable. “Any kind of minority, LGBTQ, or even the rights of women we have now, or Arabs, can be affected,” she said.
The proposals have also drawn fierce criticism from executives in Israel’s crucial tech sector, former central bank chiefs, and even former members of the military. On Monday, Tamir Pardo, a former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, told the Times of Israel that the reform would turn Israel into a country that he “wouldn’t want to live in”.
They have also elicited veiled expressions of concern from Israel’s allies. US president Joe Biden told a New York Times columnist over the weekend that Israel’s democracy was based on checks and balances and “an independent judiciary”, and that “building consensus for fundamental changes is really important”.