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Israel's protests start again after prime minister tries to weaken judiciary

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In Israel today, thousands of protesters blocked highways and demonstrated at the country's main airport. They say they fear for the future of Israeli democracy, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has revived his plan to weaken the judiciary. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

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DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Overnight, Israel's parliament gave initial approval to a bill that would take away one of the court's key powers, the power to overturn decisions by cabinet ministers and lawmakers in the government if the court finds them unreasonable. By early morning, protesters were already blocking roads to oppose the move.

OFER SCHONBERGER: It's a significant step downward for Israel, and this is what brings everybody out to the streets.

ESTRIN: Tech developer Ofer Schonberger.

SCHONBERGER: For me personally, I'm really afraid, like, Israel is going to a place that - not worthy of my kids.

ESTRIN: Police sprayed a water cannon to clear a highway and made scores of arrests.

Uh-oh, here comes a policeman on course charging through a crowd.

Just a few months ago, massive protests forced Netanyahu to pause his efforts to overhaul the judiciary. The protests quieted down, and politicians were in talks to reach a consensus on major changes to the rule of law. But those talks failed. And so Netanyahu said his coalition would press on with its plans.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: In a video, Netanyahu said the bill he's advancing will strengthen democracy. His right-wing coalition says the courts are too liberal and interfere too much in the elected government's agenda. Constitutional law expert Rivka Weill of Israel's Reichman University says if the bill passes, it would remove necessary checks on power.

RIVKA WEILL: It will definitely affect the rule of law, the integrity of the public sector and will also threaten demonstrators who are currently protesting against the government's policy. We may see much harsher treatment of demonstrators.

ESTRIN: In a recent CNN interview, President Biden said the Israeli cabinet includes some of the most extreme members that he's seen over decades. He's urged Bibi Netanyahu to reach a broad public consensus on changes to the courts.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Hopefully, Bibi will continue to move toward moderation in changing the court.

ESTRIN: Israel's central bank governor says the upheaval has weakened the economy, and the national labor union chief has threatened a countrywide strike.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.