Israel: Huge rally pushes back at judicial reform protests

Tens of thousands of Israelis have rallied in Jerusalem in support of controversial plans by the far-right government to reform the judiciary.

It was the biggest demonstration of its kind yet. Plans include curbing the Supreme Court and giving the government control over the appointment of judges.

“The nation demands a judicial reform,” was the repeated cry from the crowd.

Israelis are deeply split over the proposals, with huge weekly protests against them over the past four months.

Last month, there was also a widespread national strike, which even stopped departures from the country’s main airport in Tel Aviv. Some army reservists have refused to do their reserve service in protest, which is seen as a concern for national security.

While Thursday’s demonstration was billed as a “million man” march, it is estimated that some 150,000 to 200,000 joined in.

Some participants trampled on posters of the Supreme Court justices and the Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara, who has become a bête noire for key members of the current government and its backers.

The justice and finance ministers addressed the crowd, promising to pass the judicial bills which were recently postponed by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the time, Mr Netanyahu said he wanted to allow dialogue with his opponents. However, some cabinet ministers said they had agreed to the delay only until the parliament reconvened for its summer session on April 30.

“To all my friends who are sitting here, see how much power we have,” far-right lawmaker and Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, told the rally.

“They have the media and they have tycoons who will fund the protests, but we have the nation.”

“We will fix what needs to be fixed,” he went on.

The Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, said that two million Israelis who had voted for the current government had given a mandate for the changes.

“We are told that if the reform passes, there’ll be a dictatorship. There is no greater lie than this,” he said.

On Twitter, Mr Netanyahu wrote: “I thank the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who came to Jerusalem tonight to support our government. Your passion and patriotism moves me deeply.”

Supporters of the changes argue they would restore balance between the branches of government so that the elected parliament has the final say, as fitting in a democracy.

Critics insist they remove checks on those in power, weaken the independence of the courts and endanger democracy.

At events for and against the judicial overhaul, there has been a sea of blue and white Israeli flags.

Recent polls indicate that the overhaul plans as they stand are very unpopular and that many Israelis would support a compromise.

The Israeli president – whose role is largely as a figurehead – has been urging both sides to reach a compromise and has hosted talks between politicians.

In response to the pro-overhaul rally, the opposition leader, Yair Lapid, wrote on social media that he felt “deep shame and sadness” at how images of top justices had been trodden on.

“The inflammatory speeches of the ministers and MKs (parliamentarians) only continue to tear the country apart and dismantle Israeli society,” he went on. “Where does this government want to lead us?”

Senior figures in the anti-government protest movement have pledged to bring even larger crowds out on the streets of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities on Saturday, for a 17th consecutive week of demonstrations. -BBC

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