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Israelis protest reforms ahead of new parliament session

Opponents of the Israeli government's controversial judicial reform plans carry candles as they march through Tel Aviv ahead of the new session of parliament
— Tel Aviv (AFP)

The latest protest against the Israeli government's controversial judicial reform plans packed central Tel Aviv on Saturday, as divisions persist before lawmakers return to parliament.

Opponents of the legislation have kept up demonstrations in the commercial hub and across the country since January, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu putting the controversial reform programme on ice a month ago.

"History has its eyes on you," read a placard held aloft at the rally in Tel Aviv, where demonstrators lit flares and waved national flags in the latest show of political discontent.

Israeli society has been deeply split over the ambitious legislation, which seeks to weaken the Supreme Court and hand politicians greater influence over the selection of judges.

Netanyahu's right-wing administration argues the proposals are necessary to rebalance power between the judiciary and elected officials, while opponents say they represent a threat to democracy.

The weekly rallies have repeatedly drawn tens of thousands onto the streets of Tel Aviv. Israel's Channel 12 estimated around 150,000 attended Saturday, while Channel 13 put the figure at around 200,000.

Holding an Israeli flag, protester Iris Oren said the rally was a "fight for democracy".

"This struggle gives us strength and it is clear to me that it also reaches the Knesset (parliament), and it is clear to them that they will not be able to pass unilateral decisions," she told AFP.

- Rival rallies -

Israelis gathered against the backdrop of cross-party talks hosted by President Isaac Herzog this month, which have sought to reach a compromise on the reform package.

Israeli society has been deeply split by the planned legislation, which seeks to weaken the Supreme Court and hand politicians greater influence over the selection of judges

The negotiations were launched after Netanyahu announced a halt to the legislative process on March 27 "out of a desire to prevent a rift in the nation", in the face of mass protests and a general strike.

However, the opposition has remained sceptical of the premier's intentions and no compromise has been reached.

With parliament due to hold an opening session Monday after a recess, both backers of the reform and its detractors have sought to keep up the pressure on politicians.

The architect of the reform, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, addressed thousands of supporters who rallied in Jerusalem on Thursday.

The pro-reform protest was also attended by far-right Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich, who vowed the government would not "give up" on the package.

The cabinet ministers are part of a coalition of right-wing, extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties which took office in late December.

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