Israelis hold mass protest outside parliament against judicial reforms
Tens of thousands of Israelis protested outside parliament on Monday against the government's controversial judicial reform plan, which aims to give lawmakers substantially more control over the supreme court.
The measures, which were inching toward approval through a series of preliminary votes inside the chamber, have provoked widespread criticism and charges that they would give the legislative branch nearly unchecked authority.
Outside Israel's Knesset in Jerusalem, protesters filled the grounds with a sea of blue and white Israeli flags and waved placards that read "Save Israel democracy" and "The whole world is watching".
Multiple media outlets estimated the crowd at between 80,000 and 90,000, and the national rail service said it had expanded its Tel Aviv to Jerusalem service to accommodate the masses of people seeking to reach parliament.
President Isaac Herzog, in a rare national address late Sunday focused on the reform plan, warned that Israel was "on the verge of legal and social collapse".
Herzog, who holds a largely ceremonial role, urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hardline right-wing government to pause the legislative process and hold talks with the opposition in hopes of reaching a compromise.
"I am appealing to you with a request not to introduce the bill for its first reading," Herzog said.
But the committee tasked with reviewing a plan in line with Justice Minister Yariv Levin's proposal was approving sections of the legislation on Monday.
'End of a democratic era'
It was not immediately clear when the government would set a first vote in parliament, but Israeli reports said it could be held Monday. Three plenum votes are required before a bill becomes law.
There were minor disturbances in the hearing room when opposition lawmakers left their chairs to verbally confront committee chairman Simcha Rotman. Security personnel restrained at least two opposition members.
Netanyahu accused opposition lawmakers of going "on a rampage inside the Knesset".
"I call on the leaders of the opposition to stop it," the premier said in a statement. "Stop deliberately leading the country into anarchy... Show some responsibility and leadership."
Lapid had earlier told journalists that the bill's passage would mark "the end of the democratic era of this country", calling the Netanyahu government "extremist and corrupt".
Netanyahu and his allies say the reforms are necessary to correct a power imbalance between elected representatives and the nation's top court.
His government wants to give the government de facto control over supreme court nominees, a role currently held by a mixed panel of politicians, judges and bar association members.
Levin's plan would also give parliament the power to override supreme court decisions through a simple majority vote.
Critics, including supreme court president Esther Hayut, have condemned the bill as an assault on the independence of Israel's judiciary.
Some of Netanyahu's critics have also tied the reform plan to his ongoing corruption trial, arguing he is seeking to undermine a judicial system he has accused of targeting him unfairly for political reasons.
Netanyahu has denied the corruption charges.
The veteran leader, who reclaimed power late last year after spending 14 months in opposition, has also firmly rejected any link between the justice minister's proposal and his own trial.
Levin, reacting to Herzog's proposal, told Israeli media that he was prepared for and "wishes to engage in genuine dialogue with the members of the opposition" on ways to improve the judiciary.
But he rejected any "linkage... between dialogue and moving forward with the legislative process".
He warned that agreeing to work with the opposition should not "become a means for foot-dragging in order to delay and to prevent a substantive and meaningful reform to the justice system".
Herzog in his national address conceded that changes were needed to improve the judiciary and make it more responsive to the "range of opinions" in Israel, but warned against giving another branch of government a "structural majority" over the court.