Israelis gathered in three cities against Netanyahu’s legal reforms

TEL AVIV, Jan 14 (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in three major cities on Saturday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform plans, with organizers accusing him of undermining democratic rule weeks after his re-election.

Overcoming a religious-nationalist coalition with a solid parliamentary majority, Netanyahu, now in his sixth term, wants to mastery of the Supreme Court in what he described as rebalancing the three powers.

Critics say the proposed reforms would cripple judicial independence, encourage corruption, hamper minority rights and rob the Israeli judiciary of the credibility that helps fend off war crimes accusations abroad. Among the opposers are the President of the Supreme Court and the Chief Prosecutor of the country.

After President Isaac Herzog appealed of polarized politicians to “turn down the heat” on the debates, organizers of the demonstrations – held in cold winter rain – tried to bring a note of national unity.

“Take an Israeli flag in one hand, an umbrella in the other and go out to defend democracy and the law in the state of Israel,” said centrist former defense minister Benny Gantz, who attended the rally in Tel Aviv but, like other opposition figures, he didn’t have to look at it.

“We preserve our common home,” read a placard of one demonstrator. Netanyahu was guilty of a “legal coup,” another said.

Israeli media put the number of attendees at around 80,000, with thousands more at the protests in Jerusalem and Haifa.

Footage on social media showed a small number of Palestinian flags displayed in defiance of Netanyahu’s far-right allies. One of them, Ministry of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, told Kan TV that he wanted such flags removed but was awaiting the opinion of the attorney general before ordering any police crackdown.

Netanyahu, 73, on Friday signaled flexibility on the reform plan, saying it would be implemented “with careful consideration while all positions are heard”.

Surveys differ on public views on the reforms. Channel 13 TV last week found that 53 percent of Israelis were against changing the structure of judicial appointments, while 35 percent were in favor. But Channel 14 television on Thursday found 61% in favor and 35% against.

Critics of the Supreme Court say it is overreaching and unrepresentative of the electorate. Its supporters call the court a means of achieving balance in a fractured society.

“Tens of thousands of people attended the demonstrations tonight. Millions turned out in the elections held here two and a half months ago,” tweeted Miki Zohar, a senior lawmaker from Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party.

“We promised the people change, we promised governance, we promised reforms – and we will deliver on that.

Written by Dan Williams; Editing by Christina Fincher and Mark Potter

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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