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Israelis are protesting against the Netanyahu government's proposals to weaken the judiciary

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

*** Israel's new far-right government, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, is facing protests over its plans to weaken the judiciary. Top legal figures are calling the proposal a threat to democracy and say it could also affect rights for Palestinians. A former prime minister is among those who urge Israelis to take to the streets tonight. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israel's new justice minister this week published the government's proposal for redefining the country's system of checks and balances. Part of the plan would give parliament the power to overrule the Supreme Court when it annuls laws it deems unconstitutional. This plan has drawn unprecedented protest from Israel's legal community, the attorney general, all of Israel's previous attorneys general and current chief justice of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, who said in a speech this week the plan would crush the justice system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ESTHER HAYUT: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: She said, "if the plan is implemented, Israel's democratic identity would suffer a fatal blow."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAYUT: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: But Israel's right wing has long seen the Supreme Court as too activist, overprotective of Palestinian rights, and too lenient on allowing African asylum seekers status in the country. Ultra-Orthodox members of the government want more religious influence in the law. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his government's plans in a video message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said, "the new government won a clear mandate in elections to enact its plan." And he called for calm. He said the idea is to rebalance Israel's system of checks and balances. U.S. lawyer Alan Dershowitz told Israeli Army Radio that he warned Netanyahu personally against the plan.

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ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Civil liberties and minority rights are in danger.

ESTRIN: Dershowitz spoke after thousands marched in downtown Tel Aviv last weekend, the first major Israeli gathering protesting the new government.

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DERSHOWITZ: If I were in Israel, I would be joining the protests.

ESTRIN: Another demonstration is planned in Tel Aviv tonight. But protesters are divided. Some just want to focus on the judiciary. Others want to focus on the occupation of the West Bank. Avner Gvaryahu of the left-wing group Breaking the Silence spoke at the first protest but won't be speaking at today's. He says demonstrating in support of Israel's judiciary isn't enough when Palestinians under occupation have unequal rights to Jewish citizens, and the government seeks to deepen its military occupation over Palestinians.

AVNER GVARYAHU: Part of our challenge is going to be, how do we make sure that the only conversation isn't only about preserving, you know, rights for Jews, but also convincing the center left that it's not only the right thing to do, but it's also in their interest to address the elephant in the room that they have been systematically ignoring?

ESTRIN: Tensions are rising. A far-right lawmaker called to arrest opposition lawmakers leading the protest movement. Far-right Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir wants tough policing at today's protest. He wants to ban protesters from carrying the Palestinian flag, a move the attorney general opposes. Police say they're concerned about public disturbances at the protest. Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid says his children will be demonstrating.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YAIR LAPID: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: On TV, he called on every citizen to protest against what he called an attempt to overturn democracy. Netanyahu's justice minister says he's determined to carry out his plans to change the judiciary.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN SHELLEY SONG, "OVER AND EVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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