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Israel's Netanyahu advances judicial changes despite uproar

Protesters supporting women's rights, dressed as characters from The Handmaid's Tale, attend a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Feb. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty) Protesters supporting women's rights, dressed as characters from The Handmaid's Tale, attend a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Feb. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
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TEL AVIV, Israel -

Israel's government on Monday pressed ahead with a contentious plan to overhaul the country's legal system, despite an unprecedented uproar that has included mass protests, warnings from military and business leaders and calls for restraint by the United States.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament, or Knesset, for a second straight week to rally against the plan as lawmakers prepared to hold an initial vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies, a collection of ultra-religious and ultranationalist lawmakers, say the plan is meant to fix a system that has given the courts and government legal advisers too much say in how legislation is crafted and decisions are made. Critics say it will upend the country's system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister. They also say that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.

Simcha Rothman, a far-right lawmaker leading the legislative initiative, presented the proposal to the Knesset during a stormy debate. Several opposition lawmakers were escorted out of the hall by security for screaming at him, while a spectator was carried away by guards from the viewing gallery after smashing the protective glass in anger.

The standoff has plunged Israel into one of its greatest domestic crises, sharpening a divide between Israelis over the character of their state and the values they believe should guide it.

"We are fighting for our children's future, for our country's future. We don't intend to give up," opposition leader Yair Lapid told a meeting of his party in the Knesset as protesters amassed outside.

Small groups of protesters demonstrated outside the homes of some lawmakers, preventing one member of Netanyahu's Likud party from taking her special-needs daughter to school.

Netanyahu accused the demonstrators of inciting violence and said they were ignoring the will of the people who voted the government into power last November. Netanyahu for his part, along with his political allies, denied the legitimacy of the short-lived previous government which briefly unseated him in 2021.

"The people exercised their right to vote in the elections and the people's representatives will exercise their right to vote here in Israel's Knesset. It's called democracy," Netanyahu told his Likud party. Netanyahu showed no sign of backing down before the vote despite the pressure, but left the door open for dialogue on the planned changes.

Monday's vote on part of the legislation is just the first of three readings required for parliamentary approval. While that process is expected to take months, the vote is a sign of the coalition's determination to barrel ahead and seen by many as an act of bad faith.

Israel's figurehead president has urged the government to freeze the legislation and seek a compromise with the opposition. Leaders in the booming tech sector have warned that weakening the judiciary could drive away investors. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been protesting in Tel Aviv and other cities each week.

Last week, some 100,000 people demonstrated outside the Knesset as a committee granted initial approval to the plan. It was the largest protest in the city in years.

For a second straight week, thousands of people poured into the city from around the country for a mass demonstration against the planned judicial changes. Many waved Israeli flags, blew horns, and held signs reading "saving democracy."

"All the steps that are going to take place now in the Knesset will change us to a pure dictatorship," said Itan Gur Aryeh, a 74-year-old retiree. "All the power will be with the government, with the head of the government and we'll all be without rights."

Earlier in the day, protesters launched a sit-down demonstration at the entrance of the homes of some coalition lawmakers and briefly halted traffic on Tel Aviv's main highway. Hundreds waved Israeli flags in Tel Aviv and also in the northern city of Haifa, holding signs reading "resistance is mandatory."

"We're here to demonstrate for the democracy. Without democracy there's no state of Israel. And we're going to fight till the end," said Marcos Fainstein, a protester in Tel Aviv.

The overhaul has prompted otherwise stoic former security chiefs to speak out, and even warn of civil war. In a sign of the rising emotions, a group of army veterans in their 60s and 70s stole a decommissioned tank from a war memorial site and draped it with Israel's declaration of independence before being stopped by police.

The plan has even sparked rare warnings from the U.S., Israel's chief international ally.

U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides told a podcast over the weekend that Israel should "pump the brakes" on the legislation and seek a consensus on reform that would protect Israel's democratic institutions.

His comments drew angry responses from Netanyahu allies, telling Nides to stay out of Israel's internal affairs.

Speaking to his Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu dismissed suggestions that Israel's democracy was under threat. "Israel was and will remain a strong and vibrant democracy," he said.

While Israel has long boasted of its democratic credentials, critics say that claim is tainted by the country's West Bank occupation and the treatment of its own Palestinian minority.

Israel's Palestinian citizens -- a minority that may have the most to lose by the legal overhaul -- have largely sat out the protests, in part because of discrimination they suffer at home and because of Israel's 55-year military occupation over their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank. Jewish settlers in the West Bank can vote in Israeli elections and are generally protected by Israeli laws, while Palestinians in the same territory are subject to military rule and cannot vote.

Monday's parliamentary votes seek to grant the ruling coalition more power over who becomes a judge. Today, a selection committee is made up of politicians, judges and lawyers -- a system that proponents say promotes consensus.

The new system would give coalition lawmakers control over the appointments. Critics fear that judges will be appointed based on their loyalty to the government or prime minister.

A second change would bar the Supreme Court from overturning what are known as "basic laws," pieces of legislation that stand in for a constitution, which Israel does not have. Critics say that legislators will be able to dub any law a basic law, removing judicial oversight over controversial legislation.

Also planned are proposals that would give parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court rulings and control the appointment of government legal advisers. The advisers currently are professional civil servants, and critics say the new system would politicize government ministries.

Critics also fear the overhaul will grant Netanyahu an escape route from his legal woes. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a biased judicial system on a witch hunt against him.

Recent polls show that most Israelis, including many Netanyahu supporters, support halting the legislation and moving forward through consensus.

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Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press reporter Ami Bentov in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed.

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