JERUSALEM — Tens of thousands of protesters marched on the main highway leading into Jerusalem on Saturday night in a final show of force aimed at stopping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial overhaul. More than 100 former Israeli security chiefs signed a letter begging the Israeli prime minister to stop the act.
The arrival of marchers turned the main entrance of the city into a sea of blue and white Israeli flags as they completed the final leg of a four-day, 70-kilometer (45-mile) journey from Tel Aviv to the Israeli parliament.
The marchers joined forces with hundreds of other protesters and plan to camp outside the Knesset, or parliament, ahead of a vote scheduled for Monday.
Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies say an overhaul is needed to limit what they see as the excessive powers of unelected judges. But their critics say the plan will destroy the country’s system of checks and balances and set it on a path towards authoritarian rule.
The proposed overhaul has drawn fierce criticism from health and business leaders, and a growing number of military reservists in key units have said they will stop reporting on duty if the plan is approved, raising concerns that the country’s security interests could be at stake.
More than 100 former top security chiefs, including retired military commanders, police commissioners and heads of intelligence agencies joined those calls on Saturday, signing a letter to Netanyahu blaming him for damaging Israel’s defenses, weakening the Israel Defense Forces and urging him to block the law. The signatories include Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel.
They wrote: “The law is crushing what Israeli society shares, is dividing people, disintegrating the IDF and dealing fatal blows to Israel’s security.
“The legislative process violates the 75-year-old social contract between the Israeli government and the thousands of officers and reservists from the land, air, sea and intelligence sectors who have volunteered for many years in the reserve to defend the democratic state of Israel, and must now announce with a broken heart that they are suspending their volunteer service,” the letter read.
After seven consecutive months of the longest and most violent protests the country has ever seen, the grassroots protest movement has reached its climax.
Congress is expected to vote on Monday on a measure to prevent Supreme Court justices from overturning government decisions on the basis that they are “unreasonable”.
Advocates say the current “reasonable” standard gives judges undue authority over elected officials’ decision-making. But critics say the removal of the standard, which is invoked only in rare cases, would allow the government to pass arbitrary decisions, improperly appoint or dismiss and create opportunities for corruption.
Protests were also planned for Saturday night in the central square of the coastal city of Tel Aviv, Israel’s main hub.
Monday’s vote will mark the first major piece of legislation passed.
The overhaul also calls for other far-reaching changes to limit the power of the judiciary, from limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge congressional decisions to changing the way judges are selected.
The protesters, who make up a broad section of Israeli society, see the overhaul as a power struggle fueled by many personal and political grievances of Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and his partners, who want to strengthen Israel’s control of the occupied West Bank and maintain controversial draft waivers for ultra-Orthodox men.
In a speech on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu further emphasized the overhaul and dismissed absurd accusations that the plan would destroy Israel’s democratic foundations.
“This is an attempt to mislead you about something that has no basis in fact,” he said. Alarmed by an increasing number of reservists refusing to serve, Israel’s Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, pushed for a delay to Monday’s vote, according to Israeli media reports. It is unclear if others will join him.