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Israel's Netanyahu Advances Judicial Changes Despite Uproar

Israelis wave the national flag and carry a large copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence to protest plans by the government to overhaul the judicial system outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Feb. 20, 2023.

Israel's government on Monday pressed ahead with a contentious plan to overhaul the country's legal system, despite an unprecedented uproar that has included mass protests, warnings from military and business leaders, and calls for restraint by the United States.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament, or Knesset, for a second straight week to rally against the plan as lawmakers prepared to hold an initial vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies, a collection of ultrareligious and ultranationalist lawmakers, say the plan is meant to fix a system that has given the courts and government legal advisers too much say in how legislation is crafted and decisions are made. Critics say it will upend the country's system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister. They also say that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.

Simcha Rothman, a far-right lawmaker leading the legislative initiative, presented the proposal to the Knesset during a stormy debate. Security escorted several opposition lawmakers out of the hall for screaming at him, and a spectator was carried away by guards from the viewing gallery after smashing the protective glass in anger.

The standoff has plunged Israel into one of its greatest domestic crises, sharpening a divide between Israelis over the character of their state and the values they believe should guide it.

"We are fighting for our children's future, for our country's future. We don't intend to give up," opposition leader Yair Lapid told a meeting of his party in the Knesset as protesters amassed outside.

Small groups of protesters demonstrated outside the homes of some lawmakers, preventing one member of Netanyahu's Likud party from taking her special-needs daughter to school.

Netanyahu accused the demonstrators of inciting violence and said they were ignoring the will of the people who voted the government into power last November. Netanyahu, for his part, along with his political allies, denied the legitimacy of the short-lived previous government that briefly unseated him in 2021.

"The people exercised their right to vote in the elections, and the people's representatives will exercise their right to vote here in Israel's Knesset. It's called democracy," Netanyahu told his Likud party. Netanyahu showed no sign of backing down before the vote despite the pressure but left the door open for dialogue on the planned changes.

Monday's vote on part of the legislation is just the first of three readings required for parliamentary approval. While that process is expected to take months, the vote is a sign of the coalition's determination to barrel ahead and is seen by many as an act of bad faith.

People protest against the Israeli government's judicial reform bill near the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Feb. 20, 2023.
People protest against the Israeli government's judicial reform bill near the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Feb. 20, 2023.

Israel's figurehead president has urged the government to freeze the legislation and seek a compromise with the opposition. Leaders in the booming tech sector have warned that weakening the judiciary could drive away investors. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been protesting in Tel Aviv and other cities each week.

Last week, some 100,000 people demonstrated outside the Knesset as a committee granted initial approval to the plan. It was the largest protest in the city in years.

For a second straight week, thousands of people poured into the city from around the country for a mass demonstration against the planned judicial changes. Many waved Israeli flags, blew horns, and held signs reading "saving democracy."

"All the steps that are going to take place now in the Knesset will change us to a pure dictatorship," said Itan Gur Aryeh, a 74-year-old retiree. "All the power will be with the government, with the head of the government, and we'll all be without rights."

Earlier in the day, protesters launched a sit-down demonstration at the entrance of the homes of some coalition lawmakers and briefly halted traffic on Tel Aviv's main highway. Hundreds waved Israeli flags in Tel Aviv and also in the northern city of Haifa, holding signs reading "resistance is mandatory."

"We're here to demonstrate for the democracy. Without democracy there's no state of Israel. And we're going to fight till the end," said Marcos Fainstein, a protester in Tel Aviv.