Tens of thousands demonstrated in central Tel Aviv on Saturday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right new government, which critics say threatens Israeli democracy.
Demonstrators braved the rain for the rally, holding signs with slogans decrying a “government of shame” and calling for “the dictator to fall”, AFP correspondents said.
Israeli media reported that 80,000 people joined the rally, citing police sources. Police gave no official estimate after reporting 20,000 protesters earlier in the evening.
The protest is the largest since Netanyahu’s new government took power in late December in Israel, a country of just over nine million people.
“The situation is worrying and scary,” said 22-year-old protester Aya Tal, who works in the high-tech industry.
“They want to take away our rights… We have to unite.”
Other rallies took place in Jerusalem, outside the prime minister’s and president’s residences, and in the northern city of Haifa, local media reported.
Already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu returned to power leading a coalition with far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, some of whose officials now head key ministries.
Protesters called on Netanyahu, who is fighting corruption charges in court, to step down.
“Bibi (Netanyahu) doesn’t want democracy, we don’t need fascists in the Knesset,” read a sign at the Tel Aviv protest, referring to Israel’s parliament.
Crowds filled the streets surrounding Tel Aviv’s Habima Square and chanted “democracy, democracy”, according to an AFP correspondent.
Opposition parties had called on Israelis to join the protest – organized by an anti-corruption group – to “save democracy” and to protest against a planned judicial overhaul.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Jan. 4 announced a controversial plan to give lawmakers more powers to appoint judges and overrule Supreme Court rulings.
In Israel, which has no constitution, the Supreme Court currently has the power to strike down laws it deems discriminatory.
Former Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia told the crowd that the Israeli public “will not accept… the destruction of the core values of our system.”
“We are at a fateful moment for the future of Israel,” she said.
The new government has also announced its intention to pursue a policy of settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and to carry out social reforms that worry members and supporters of the LGBTQ community.
The rally included messages against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and calls to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community.
“There is no democracy with occupation,” read one placard.
Netanyahu is the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted while in office. He denies the charges against him of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The leader of the right-wing Likud party was ousted from office in 2021 after a record 12-year run by a ragtag coalition of parties, elected in the wake of anti-corruption protests that called for Netanyahu’s resignation.
His return to power ended an unprecedented period of political stalemate that forced five elections in less than four years and deepened social divisions.
Center-left opposition Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli was among several politicians at the Tel Aviv rally, as was former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
Former defense minister Benny Gantz, now in opposition, shared a video of himself at the protest on Twitter.
“We will fight in the Knesset, we will fight in the media, we will fight in the streets,” Gantz told protesters.
“We will ensure that Israel’s democratic foundations are preserved,” he said. “We are fighting together for the future of the country.”