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Israelis block highways in nationwide protests over government’s plan to overhaul judiciary

JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli protesters blocked highways leading to Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv on Tuesday, at the start of a day of countrywide demonstrations against the government’s planned judicial overhaul that has divided the nation.

The demonstrations came the morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition gave initial approval for a bill to limit the Supreme Court’s oversight powers, pressing forward with the contentious proposed changes to the judiciary despite widespread opposition.

The legislation is one of several bills proposed by Netanyahu’s ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies. The plan has provoked months of sustained protests by opponents who say it is pushing the country toward authoritarian rule.

Anti-overhaul activists have called for nationwide mass demonstrations throughout the day, including protests at Israel’s main international airport that could disrupt travel.

Police cleared protesters who blocked a main artery leading to Jerusalem with a water cannon and officers arrested several others who had obstructed a highway next to the central city of Modiin. Demonstrators blocked a main highway in Haifa with a large banner reading “together we will be victorious,” snarling traffic along the beachfront.

Israeli police officers disperse demonstrators blocking a highway leading to Jerusalem during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system on Tuesday. PHOTO: AP

Netanyahu’s allies have proposed a series of changes to the Israeli legal system aimed at weakening what they say are the excessive powers of unelected judges. The proposed changes include giving Netanyahu’s allies control over the appointment of judges and giving parliament power to overturn court decisions.

Netanyahu put the overhaul plan on hold in March after weeks of mass protests. But last month, he decided to revive the plan after talks with the political opposition aimed at finding a compromise collapsed.

Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a highway leading to Jerusalem during the protest on Tuesday. PHOTO: AP

The Netanyahu government, which took office in December, is the most hard-line ultranationalist and ultra-orthodox in Israel’s 75-year history. His allies proposed the sweeping changes to the judiciary after the country held its fifth elections in under four years, all of them seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to serve as prime minister while on trial for corruption.

Critics of the plan say it will upset the country’s fragile system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies. They also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because he is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, all of which he has denied.

A wide swath of Israeli society have joined the protests.

Israeli protesters block the Tel Aviv-Haifa highway near Beit Yanai, Israel, during the protest on Tuesday. PHOTO: AP