- By Yolande Knell
- BBC News, Jerusalem
Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in Jerusalem in support of controversial plans by the far-right government to reform the judiciary.
It was the largest show of its kind to date. The plans include reducing the Supreme Court and giving the government control over the appointment of judges.
“The nation demands judicial reform,” was the repeated cry of the masses.
Israelis are deeply divided over the proposals, with huge weekly protests against it for the past four months.
Last month, there was also a nationwide strike, which even halted departures from the country’s main airport in Tel Aviv. Some Army reservists refused to perform their reserve service in protest, which is seen as a national security concern.
While Thursday’s demonstration has been described as a “million man” march, it is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 joined in.
Some participants trampled on posters of Supreme Court justices and Attorney General Gali Bahrav-Mayara, who have become a firebrand for key members of the current government and its backers.
The justice and finance ministers addressed the crowd, promising to pass judicial bills that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently delayed.
At the time, Netanyahu said he wanted to allow dialogue with his opponents. However, some ministers in the Cabinet said they only agreed to a delay until Parliament reconvened for its summer session on 30 April.
“To all my friends sitting here, look how much power we have,” far-right lawmaker and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich told the gathering.
“They have the media and they have moguls who are funding the protests, but we have the nation.”
“We will fix what needs to be fixed,” he continued.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin said the two million Israelis who voted for the current government gave the mandate for the changes.
“We were told that if the reform passes, there will be a dictatorship. There is no greater lie than this,” he said.
“I thank the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who came to Jerusalem tonight to support our government. Your passion and patriotism move me deeply,” Mr. Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.
Supporters of the changes argue that they would rebalance the branches of government so that an elected parliament has the final say, as befits a democracy.
Critics insist they are removing checks on those in power, undermining the independence of the courts and endangering democracy.
At events for and against judicial reform, there was a sea of blue and white Israeli flags.
Recent polls indicate that the reform plans as such are very unpopular and that many Israelis would support a compromise.
The Israeli president – whose role is largely a figurehead – has been urging the two sides to compromise and has hosted talks between politicians.
In response to the pro-reform rally, opposition leader Yair Lapid wrote on social media that he was “deeply ashamed and sad” at how the photos of the senior justices were shown.
The inflammatory speeches of the ministers and members of the Knesset [parliamentarians] And he continued to tear the state apart and dismantle Israeli society. He continued, “Where does this government want to lead us?”
Leading figures in the anti-government protest movement have vowed to bring larger crowds to the streets of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities on Saturday, in the 17th consecutive week of demonstrations.
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