Jerusalem (CNN) Tens of thousands of flag-waving Israelis gathered outside the country’s parliament on Monday amid warnings that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to weaken the judiciary could plunge the country into “social collapse”.
The protesters held signs with messages such as “There is no democracy without equality” and “Destroy the country to avoid trial” – a reference to the perception that Netanyahu’s desire to end his corruption trials is behind his government’s proposed judicial reforms.
LGBTQ rainbow flags and a few Palestinian flags were scattered among many Israeli flags in the crowd.
Television images showed some protesters dressed as handmaids from the dystopian book The Handmaid’s Tale, in long red dresses with white headgear.
Despite the protest – and an impassioned plea by President Isaac Herzog on Sunday night not to start the legislative process – the government on Monday began introducing the reform bill into parliament, the Knesset, as planned. Herzog warned that Israel is “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse” and may face “a violent collision.”
Chaotic scenes played out at the Knesset’s Constitutional, Law and Justice Committee session on the bill before the protest even began, as opposition members of parliament chanted “shame”.
At one point, some of them jumped over tables to yell at coalition members before being removed by security forces.
The bill passed the committee vote and is likely to face a first reading across the Knesset on Wednesday.
Netanyahu’s coalition is seeking the most sweeping overhaul of Israel’s legal system since its inception.
The most significant of the changes would allow a simple majority in the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings.
The reforms also aim to change the way judges are selected and remove the ministries’ independent legal advisers, whose opinions are binding.
US President Joe Biden, who rarely expresses an opinion on Israeli domestic politics, urged consensus in a statement to the New York Times on Sunday: “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on controls are and balance, on an independent judiciary. It’s really important to get consensus on fundamental changes to make sure people accept them so they’re sustainable.”
Meanwhile, Israeli President Herzog, in an unusual prime-time speech on Sunday night, called for the legislative process to be halted so that both sides could come together and work on reforms based on consensus.
Acknowledging that both sides should be heard, Herzog put forward a five-point reform plan that includes changing the way judges are selected and strengthening elements of the country’s constitution. Israel has no written constitution.
Although the US praised Herzog’s speech, Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin said that while there are “positive elements in his proposal, there are also elements that perpetuate the existing abnormal situation.”
However, Levin said legislative action should not be halted for such talks, saying: “Besides the further development of the legislation, we all have enough time to speak and reach agreements before the second and third readings.”
Israeli bills need three readings in the Knesset before they become law.