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Protesters in Israel criticize the judicial overhaul planned by the new government


Israel's president says the country's current crisis is a powder keg. The coalition in power, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wants to weaken the judiciary. Protesters say it resembles what leaders have done in Hungary and Poland. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.


DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Protesters chant, embarrassment. They chant, democracy.


ESTRIN: Tens of thousands, young and old, in downtown Tel Aviv last weekend, the country's biggest demonstration in years. They're protesting the far-right government's first major initiative to try to redefine the country's checks and balances. It wants control over appointing judges, and it wants the power to uphold the law, even if the Supreme Court strikes it down as an infringement on rights and freedoms.

Suzie Navot of the Israel Democracy Institute.

SUZIE NAVOT: I think this may be the end of a full democracy. Democracy means that you have an effective protection for human rights. So crushing the Israeli democracy - I think that this idea is completely accurate.

ESTRIN: Power over the judiciary could help Israel's right wing and religious coalition achieve goals the Supreme Court has previously blocked, like taking over land owned by Palestinians and exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from the army. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could also benefit from a weakened judiciary. He's on trial for corruption. In a recent speech, he dismissed the criticism as the media's tsunami of spin.



ESTRIN: He says his government is not destroying democracy. It's saving democracy by rebalancing Israel's checks and balances. He referenced a Wall Street Journal editorial which said Israel's Supreme Court has too much power. And he said democracy must ensure the minority doesn't take control over the majority.


ESTRIN: But protesters are worried Israel could follow in the footsteps of two diminished democracies.

DAN LAHAV: I do think that Hungary is a real possibility.

MAAYAN AHARON: Poland. Poland.

LAHAV: Poland.

MENACHEM KATZ: There's a danger that Israel will become like Hungary and Poland, and we are very concerned. We don't want that to happen.

ESTRIN: Those are protesters Dan Lahav, his wife, Maayan Aharon, and Menachem Katz. When the far right came to office in Hungary in 2010 and in Poland in 2015, they took the same approach to consolidating power.

HADAS ARON: The first step in both cases was the judiciary.

ESTRIN: Israeli professor Hadas Aron of New York University studies populism in Hungary, Poland and Israel. She says Israel is taking a page from the same playbook as Hungary and Poland.

ARON: And now it seems to be an accelerated, all-out process. And it's really alarming.

ESTRIN: Israel's top legal figures have protested, and now Israeli economic leaders are, too. Israel's economy is strong, but two former Israeli central bankers warn that Israel's international credit rating could drop. That's what happened to Poland and Hungary when their judiciaries were weakened.

Israel's central bank saw one of its top monetary advisers quit this week in protest, Moshe Hazan. He told NPR a big U.S. investment bank asked him this week whether to even invest in Israel with the government's plans for the judiciary.

MOSHE HAZAN: And I think it's important to make clear to the government that this reform is going to hurt the Israeli economy and probably pretty soon.



ESTRIN: Israeli President Isaac Herzog said in a speech he's negotiating with politicians behind the scenes to avert a historic constitutional crisis. But the government has shown no sign of backing down. Neither have protesters. They're planning their fourth consecutive demonstration this coming weekend.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL LAURANCE'S "MR. ELEVATOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.