JERUSALEM — In what was expected to become one of the largest mass protests in Israeli history, tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated on Monday in cities across the country to voice their opposition to the right-wing government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.
The scale of the protests reflected a deep disagreement in Israeli society over the ideal structure and future of the country’s democratic institutions, amid growing fears that the rift could set off political violence between factions or even civil war.
The demonstrations followed a dramatic speech on Sunday night by Israel’s mainly ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, in which he called for compromise and warned that the crisis had left the country “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse,” and possibly “a violent clash.”
Rooted in a decades-old culture war between different parts of Israeli society, the standoff began after Israel’s new government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in the country’s history — entered office in late December and almost immediately sought to significantly reduce judicial oversight of Parliament and increase the government’s control over who gets to be a judge.
To the government and its supporters, the move would enhance Israeli democracy by restoring parity in the relationship between elected lawmakers and an unelected and interventionist judiciary, and ensuring that government decisions better reflect the electoral choices of a majority of the population.
Israel’s New Far-Right Government
Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to power at the helm of the most right-wing and religiously conservative administration ever in Israeli history.
- Risk of Escalation: The roots of the recent spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank predate Israel’s new government, but the administration’s ministers and goals are fueling tensions.
- A Hard-Right Agenda: The new government has moved quickly on several agenda items that would weaken the judiciary, entrench Israeli control of the West Bank and strengthen ultraconservative Jews.
- Ultra-Orthodox Parties: To preserve his new government, Mr. Netanyahu has made a string of promises to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties. Their push for greater autonomy has potentially broad-ranging implications.
- Minister Removal: Mr. Netanyahu dismissed a senior minister recently convicted of tax fraud to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that disqualified the minister from serving.
To critics, the proposals would instead damage Israeli democracy by giving too much power to the government; endangering minority rights; and removing limits on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to enact legislation that might allow him to escape punishment in his ongoing corruption trial. Mr. Netanyahu denies that the proposals are for his personal benefit.
The focus of the protests on Monday was a road in central Jerusalem that connects the three branches of government — the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the prime minister’s headquarters.
Roughly 100,000 people had gathered there by midafternoon, according to Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster, with many more expected to arrive later in the day. Israeli media reported that a 2.5-mile long convoy of cars was driving to Jerusalem from northern Israel, bringing thousands more protesters to the city.
Transport officials and companies arranged extra trains and buses to cope with the extra demand for Jerusalem-bound transit. Rare lines formed outside stations in Tel Aviv as crowds of protesters waited to embark on trains heading to the capital.
In their comments, speeches and banners, the protesters expressed fears that the judicial proposals would turn Israel into a dictatorship.
“You voted Bibi,” read one protester’s placard, using a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu. “You got Mussolini.”
Gili Bar-Hillel, a publisher and translator, drove from Tel Aviv to participate, and described the judicial overhaul as “a regime coup.”
“I can’t stand and watch and say I didn’t do anything,” said Ms. Bar-Hillel, 48. “We are not far from a situation where we won’t be allowed to protest,” she added. “It’s a slippery slope.”
The protest followed weeks of regular demonstrations in Tel Aviv, where a similar number of people have gathered every Saturday night since the start of the year. But Monday’s demonstrations were considered more impressive because they occurred during a weekday and mainly in Jerusalem, a right-wing stronghold.
Inside Parliament, a government-controlled committee voted on Monday to advance part of the proposed legislation, setting the stage for a debate on the floor of Parliament in the coming days — the first step toward turning the plan into law at some point in the coming months.
The vote set off a fracas in the committee room after opposition lawmakers, one of them in tears, chanted against the decision, and some of them clambered over tables to confront the committee chair, Simcha Rothman, a government lawmaker.
The moves came hours after the government announced its first efforts to strengthen Israel’s settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, giving retroactive authorization to nine settlements that were built by groups of settlers without official state approval.
Though large and loud, the protests on Monday reflected only one part of Israeli public opinion. Roughly 44 percent of Israelis support the judicial overhaul and 41 percent oppose it, according to a recent poll by the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.
Myra Noveck, Gabby Sobelman and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.