Thousands of Israelis demonstrated across the country on Tuesday, blocking scores of major roads to protest an overnight vote in Parliament that advanced efforts by the far-right coalition to limit judicial oversight of the government.
Ahead of larger rallies planned for the evening, protesters erected tents on a highway in central Israel, shut down thoroughfares in Tel Aviv and outside Jerusalem, and marched through the arrivals hall at the country’s main airport. Police officers fired water cannons at some protesters and arrested scores during attempts to disperse the demonstrations. Video showed officers shoving a news photographer, Rami Shlush, to the ground while he was covering the events. A police spokesman did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The protests have not yet matched the intensity of a surge of unrest in March, when leading trade unions shut down large parts of the Israeli economy in protest at the government’s earlier efforts to curb judicial power.
But they reflected how the debate over the judicial overhaul is far from over: After a three-month hiatus in which the government and the opposition sought but failed to reach a compromise, the government is proceeding once again with parts of its plan, provoking widespread anger.
The dispute is part of a wider social rift between the government and its supporters, who want to create a more religious and nationalist state, and their opponents, who hold a more secular and pluralist vision. The rift is also rooted in a profound disagreement about the form and future of Israeli democracy.
The government says that the overhaul is intended to improve the democratic system by giving elected lawmakers more power than unelected judges.
But critics fear that it undermines democracy by removing judicial oversight, risking government overreach and potentially making the current administration freer to end the prosecution of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, an accusation that he denies. He has also rejected any suggestion that he hopes to use his office to disrupt the trial.
The protests on Tuesday were set off by an overnight vote in which lawmakers — by a majority of 64 to 56 — gave provisional support to a bill that would reduce the ways in which the Supreme Court can overrule elected officials.
If the bill passes two further votes in the coming weeks, it will stop the court from using the legal standard of “reasonableness” to countermand the government.
Reasonableness is a legal standard used by courts across the world, including in countries such as Australia, Britain and Canada. A decision is deemed unreasonable if a court rules that it was made without considering all relevant issues or without giving relevant weight to each issue or that it applied too much weight to irrelevant factors.
Some Supreme Court justices angered the government this year by using the standard to stop Aryeh Deri, a leading ultra-Orthodox politician, from becoming a cabinet minister. The justices said that it was unreasonable to appoint Mr. Deri because he had recently been convicted of tax fraud.
Though there are other ways for the court to restrict government decisions, opponents of the bill say that it would remove one of the main means by which judges can defend the country from corruption and autocracy.
Growing numbers of military reservists, who play important roles in the army and air force, have said they will refuse to volunteer for duty if the overhaul proceeds.
Larger protests were planned for Tuesday evening outside the presidency in Jerusalem and the United States Embassy branch in Tel Aviv.
While President Biden has been critical of the overhaul, Israeli opposition members say that the U.S. government should take an even stronger stance.
Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem.