Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Saturday in the third straight week of protests against the hardline new government’s plans to enforce sweeping curbs on the country’s judiciary.
Police said that 120,000 people attended two main protests in Tel Aviv, Israel’s liberal beachside metropolis, waving Israeli flags and placards with messages such as “Israel, we have a problem”.
Thousands more took part in smaller rallies outside the president’s residence in Jerusalem, and in the cities of Haifa and Be’er Sheva.
The protests follow demonstrations a week ago that drew more than 80,000 people. They are the biggest display of public anger so far at plans put forward earlier this month by Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, widely regarded as the most rightwing in Israeli history, that would significantly weaken the powers of Israel’s judiciary.
Proponents argue that the plans — which would give the government and its allies control of the appointment of judges and let a simple majority in parliament override decisions by the top court to strike down laws — are necessary to roll back three decades of excessive judicial activism.
But critics see the proposals as a politically motivated attempt to weaken the already limited checks and balances on Israeli governments and fatally undermine judicial independence. The attorney-general warned last month that the overhaul risked reducing Israel to “democracy in name only”.
Former prime minister Yair Lapid, who leads the biggest opposition party, Yesh Atid, said that the protests were “a demonstration of support for the country”.
“People who love the country came here today to defend democracy, to defend the courts,” he told protesters in Tel Aviv. “We will not give up until we win.”
Netanyahu, for his part, posted on Twitter an article from the US magazine Newsweek, entitled “Israel’s Judicial Reform ‘Controversy’ Is Much Ado About Nothing”.
Saturday’s protests took place after a week in which the stand-off intensified between the country’s judiciary and Netanyahu’s government of rightwing, ultrareligious and extreme right parties.
On Wednesday, the country’s top court ordered Netanyahu to remove Aryeh Deri — a key ally who heads the second-biggest coalition party, Shas — from the cabinet, arguing that Deri’s appointment could not stand after he was convicted last year of tax fraud.
The order drew a furious response from the coalition, with justice minister Yariv Levin branding it “absurd” and Shas accusing the court of undermining the will of its voters.
Deri also struck a defiant pose, pledging that he would not be cowed. “When they close the door on us, we’ll get in through the window. When they close the window, we’ll break through the ceiling, with God’s help,” he said soon after the ruling.
The government has so far also shown little sign of being dissuaded by the street protests. After last week’s demonstrations, Netanyahu insisted that his coalition’s election victory late last year had given it a mandate to carry out the plans.
“Several months ago there was a huge demonstration, the mother of all demonstrations. Millions of people went into the streets in order to vote in the elections,” he said at a cabinet meeting. “One of the main topics that they voted on was reforming the judicial system.”