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Israelis rally ahead of critical vote to weaken power of courts

<i>Menaham Kahana/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Israel has been rocked by a months-long wave of protests after the government unveiled in January plans to overhaul the judicial system that opponents say threaten the country's democracy.
Menaham Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Israel has been rocked by a months-long wave of protests after the government unveiled in January plans to overhaul the judicial system that opponents say threaten the country's democracy.

By Hadas Gold, Abeer Salman and Richard Allen Greene, CNN

Jerusalem (CNN) — Thousands of marchers arrived in Jerusalem Saturday, the culmination of a five-day walk from Tel Aviv to protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to weaken the powers of Israel’s courts.

The demonstrators arrived the day before Israeli lawmakers begin debating what could become the first element of the plan to be voted into law.

Organizers estimated there could be as many as 30,000 people on the march, while CNN journalists said the number appeared to be closer to 5,000.

The arrival of the march comes as the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, prepares to begin on a bill that would strip the Supreme Court of the power to declare government decisions “unreasonable,” removing one of the few checks on the government in a country that has no written Constitution.

Netanyahu is pressing on with his plans after pausing them earlier this year in the face of widespread protests and international pressure.

The reasonableness bill is one part of the package and requires two more Knesset votes to become law. It could pass as early as Monday. Other proposals include giving the government a greater say in appointing judges.

Netanyahu and his allies call the measures “reforms” and say they are required to rebalance powers between the courts, lawmakers and the government. Opponents of the plan call it a coup say it threatens to turn Israel into a dictatorship by removing the most significant check on government actions.

There are suggestions that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, is trying to delay the vote after more than 1,000 Air Force reserve officers threatened to stop volunteering if the bill passed.

Such a move could impact Israeli military capabilities amid a surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence and with the country regularly bombing Iranian-linked targets in Syria.

The reservists signed an open letter warning against the changes.

“Legislation that allows the government to act in an extremely unreasonable manner will harm the security of the State of Israel, will cause a loss of trust, is a violation of my consent to continue risking my life – and will lead with deep sorrow and no choice but to suspend my volunteering of service in the reserves,” the letter said.

Amid Israeli media reports that Gallant was pushing for a delay, his office released a brief statement Friday night saying the defense minister “is working in every way to bring about a broad consensus, prevent damage to Israel’s security and keep the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] out of the political controversy.”

Netanyahu announced earlier in the year that he was firing Gallant for calling for a delay to the overhaul, but the dismissal was quietly shelved and never took effect.

In addition to the march to Jerusalem, anti-overhaul demonstrations are scheduled to take place Saturday night around the country for the 29th week in a row.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

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