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Israeli protesters back government's judicial overhaul

Protesters supporting the Israeli government's judicial reform proposals numbered in the thousands and blocked a Tel Aviv highway
— Tel Aviv (AFP)

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right government blocked a Tel Aviv highway on Thursday in their first major protest in the coastal city backing controversial judicial reforms.

After three months of tensions that split the nation, triggered protests by tens of thousands, and a general strike, Netanyahu on Monday announced a "pause" for dialogue on the measures.

"The people want a judicial reform," chanted the protesters who numbered in the thousands, according to AFP journalists.

Tel Aviv, a liberal stronghold and Israel's commercial hub, has seen weekly mass demonstrations by critics of the government's overhaul since it was announced in early January, decrying what they view as a threat to democracy.

On Monday, before Netanyahu's announcement, about 80,000 rallied in Jerusalem against the reform package, according to Israeli media.

A counter-demonstration had attracted several thousands the same day, an AFP journalist said, after Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir urged their attendance.

Meirav Reuvan, a 52-year-old economist, said she joined Thursday's rally in Tel Aviv to "support Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yariv Levin", the justice minister who has spearheaded the government's efforts.

"We're in a democracy," she told AFP. "We won and it's crazy that they won't let us govern like the majority wishes."

The government, a coalition between Netanyahu's Likud party and extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, argues the reforms are needed to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.

The proposed reforms would curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and give politicians greater powers over the selection of judges.

Yahel, a supporter of the reforms who joined the Tel Aviv rally and who works in tourism, dismissed the notion that Israel's democracy is in danger.

"I think that democracy is the will of the people, it's what the people want," said the 28-year-old from the northern city of Acre.

"A minority on the Supreme Court decides the country's politics. It shouldn't be like that."

Israeli politicians from both sides of the aisle met this week for negotiations mediated by President Isaac Herzog, who said talks were held "in a positive spirit".

A senior Israeli official said Netanyahu was determined to reach a compromise to ensure the reforms are not called into question if there is a change in government, and that an agreement seems within reach.

Many political commentators and opposition figures have voiced scepticism about the chances of Herzog's mediation efforts.

Opponents have accused Netanyahu, who is being tried on corruption charge he denies, of trying to use the reforms to quash possible judgements against him. The prime minister has rejected the accusation.

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