JERUSALEM (AP) — Tens of thousands of Israelis on Monday protested outside the parliament building in a show of force against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his government formally launched its contentious plan to overhaul the country’s legal system.
The boisterous demonstration outside the Knesset, coupled with a stormy committee vote inside the building, appeared to deepen the divisions over Netanyahu’s program. The plan has triggered weeks of mass protests, prompted condemnations from wide swaths of Israeli society and drawn a statement of concern from President Joe Biden.
Netanyahu and his allies say the country’s unelected judges have too much power and need to be reined in. His opponents say that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has a deep conflict of interest. They say his planned overhaul will destroy the country’s democratic checks and balances and is a poorly disguised plot to make his criminal case go away.
Monday’s demonstration was the largest to take place in the city in years. Thousands of people poured into Jerusalem from around the country on jam-packed trains, hoisting flags and chanting “democracy” as they exited the station.
“They hear us,” opposition leader Yair Lapid told the crowd as he pointed at the parliament. “They hear our strength and our commitment. They pretend they don’t hear. They pretend they’re not afraid. But they hear and they are afraid.”
Organizers claimed that more than 100,000 people joined Monday’s rally. They included Arab, women’s rights and LGBTQ activists as well as opposition parties. They were joined by groups of academics, army reservists, students, high-tech employees, retirees and young families.
The crowd was noisy, blowing horns, chanting “democracy,” singing and whistling. But the event passed without incident and police said there were no arrests.
Many protesters carried the blue and white Israeli flag and posters decrying what they said was an attack on the country’s democratic institutions. “Shame! Shame!” and “Israel will not be a dictatorship,” they chanted.
“The people won’t have it,” said Boaz Zarki, a demonstrator in Jerusalem. “The separation of authority is critical to the existence of democracy.”
Other large demonstrations were held in cities around the country.
Despite a call by Israel’s figurehead president to freeze the legislation and begin a dialogue with the opposition, Netanyahu pressed ahead with his program.
As protesters were gathered outside, a parliamentary committee controlled by a Netanyahu ally passed the first pieces of legislation connected to the plan.
They include a proposal to give the Netanyahu-dominated legislature control over judicial appointments. Currently, judges are appointed by an independent committee that includes lawyers, politicians and judges.
A second proposal would take away the Supreme Court’s authority to review the legality over major pieces of legislation known as “Basic Laws.”
Still in the works is another proposal to give parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions it does not like. Opponents say the proposal would push Israel toward a system like Hungary and Poland in which the leader wields control over all major levers of power.
During the unruly committee vote, opposition members stood on the conference table, pounded the desks and shouted “shame!” The committee chairman, Simcha Rothman, a member of a far-right religious party, ejected several opposition politicians, at least two of whom were dragged away by security guards.
Monday’s vote sends the first pieces of legislation to the full parliament – which would have to pass them again in three separate votes.
The first such vote is expected to take place next Monday. Netanyahu controls a solid majority in parliament, and there appears to be little to prevent him from pushing ahead. Nonetheless, Monday’s developments set the tone for what could lie ahead.
Netanyahu accused the opposition of “intentionally dragging the country to anarchy,” but also appeared to hold out the possibility of dialogue with his opponents.
“Get a hold of yourselves. Show some responsibility and leadership,” he said. “The majority of Israeli citizens don’t want anarchy. The majority of citizens want a substantive discussion, and in the end, they want unity.”
Late Monday, Netanyahu’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, and Rothman, the committee chairman, issued a joint statement inviting opposition leaders for a meeting hosted by the president.
But opposition leaders dismissed the offer, saying the legislation must first be frozen before dialogue can begin. “Anything else is surrender. Anything else destroys the protests,” said Merav Michaeli, leader of the opposition Labor Party.
Levin and Rothman expressed regret over the response and said they were ready to meet with any opposition politicians immediately.
Netanyahu and his allies took office in December after the country’s fifth election in less than four years. That election, like its predecessors, focused on Netanyahu’s fitness for office at a time when he is facing serious criminal charges.
Netanyahu has lashed out at the country’s police, prosecutors and judges, saying he is the victim of a deep-state style conspiracy to oust him. His critics say he is motivated by a personal grudge and the plan will put Israel on a path similar to authoritarian countries like Hungary and Poland.
Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government, a civil-society group that organized Monday’s demonstration, said the gathering was meant to send a message of support to the Supreme Court and a warning to the Knesset.
“We came to demonstrate against the very aggressive legislation, which is going to turn Israel from a liberal democracy into a fascist dictatorship,” he said.