JERUSALEM – Tens of thousands of Israelis opposing a judicial reform called for by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marched on Jerusalem on Saturday, as pressure mounted on his right-wing government to scrap a bill that would reduce the powers of the Supreme Court.
The government’s attempt to change the judiciary has plunged Israel into one of its worst political crises, sparking nationwide protests, denting the economy and raising concerns among Western allies.
Carrying blue and white Israeli flags, a kilometer (mile) column of protesters marched up the winding highway to Jerusalem under a scorching summer sun to the sound of drums and anti-government chants.
“Democracy is not as safe as it used to be,” said Ido Golan, a protester from central Israel who was joined by his partner and two young children, one on his back in a baby carrier. “It is very important for us and also for them to know that we did what we could to save democracy.”
The protesters had walked for several days through a heat wave and their numbers increased as they reached the city gates.
As night fell, they demonstrated outside parliament ahead of a Sunday debate and subsequent vote on the bill, which would limit the powers of the Supreme Court to overturn what it considers “unreasonable” government or ministerial decisions.
Tens of thousands more protested across the country, including some 100,000 people in the Tel Aviv mall.
Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition says the bill, which parliament will vote on Monday, is necessary to balance the branches of power.
Critics say the amendment is speeding through parliament and will open the door to abuse of power.
Polls suggest widespread misgivings among Israelis, and Washington has urged Netanyahu to seek consensus on any reform that should also uphold the independence of the judiciary.
The crisis has even sown divisions within the military, long seen as an apolitical crucible for a divided society, with concerns about war-readiness voiced on both sides of the debate.
Dozens of former security chiefs, including military, police and Mossad chiefs, some of whom had served under Netanyahu, published an open letter to the prime minister on Saturday calling off the vote and expressing support for reservists who have said they will no longer serve in protest against the government’s campaign.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption which he denies, has said he has pushed for broad deals and made opposition parties the responsibility for making deals.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Friday that he was working to reach a consensus. Energy Minister Israel Katz told N12 News the coalition will not bow to pressure from reservists trying to force a democratically elected government.
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