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Israel protests intensify over judicial system overhaul

PIEN HUANG, HOST:

Israel's government is moving quickly to pass laws that would change the balance of power in the country and weaken the powers of the courts. Street protests in Israel are growing as leaders warn that Israel's democracy is under threat. Israel's president is even warning of a possible civil war. We're going to get the latest from NPR's Daniel Estrin. He joins us now from a protest in Tel Aviv. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Pien.

HUANG: So, Daniel, give us a quick overview. How did this crisis begin?

ESTRIN: Right at the start of the year, the government announced its plan to give itself sweeping powers to handpick all of the country's judges, to pass laws that the Supreme Court cannot overturn. They want to pass laws that prioritize religion and nationalism. And these are laws that the court would likely say infringe on basic rights, and so that's why the government wants to limit the courts. And so protesters have been in the streets once or twice a week now in massive numbers. This is the 11th week in a row.

HUANG: Wow - the 11th week. I mean, how have the protests grown? What do they look like now?

ESTRIN: I'm here in downtown Tel Aviv. I'm just looking at the sea, a packed sea of people carrying Israeli flags and carrying handmade signs. It's people of all ages. You know, the protests have intensified in ways that Israel has never seen. We are looking at hundreds of thousands of Israelis. These protesters are now spread throughout the country. It's really this liberal middle-class revolt. You see kinds of people who don't usually rebel. I met a nearly 80-year-old woman with her daughters who were in the crowds in the middle of the street blocking traffic. Take a listen. This is Mihal Lichtman and her mom, Talma Bar Meir.

MIHAL LICHTMAN: We're fighting for the country. It's war. It's the worst war ever.

TALMA BAR MEIR: The country and for the future of our - my grandchildren and their children because the country is changing.

ESTRIN: You know, people here say they fear that their way of life is in danger. There are people who are protesting, thinking that women's rights will be limited under this new government. You see women marching in red robes and white bonnets like in "The Handmaid's Tale," and even author Margaret Atwood has tweeted images of that.

HUANG: Wow. So this is a huge protest, you know, countermovement. I mean, where do you see this all heading from where you are?

ESTRIN: You know, what is happening right now is that Israel's president, a largely ceremonial figure, presented a compromise. He presented a watered-down version of the legislation, but the government immediately rejected it. And so what we expect the government to do is to try to pass its legislation within the next couple of weeks. The Supreme Court then will likely overturn that legislation and say, no, you can't limit the judiciary. You can't limit us. And then we have a potential constitutional crisis here where you have two branches of government that don't agree on what the law is. Here is how those protesters you hear at the top - here's how they see it.

LICHTMAN: It's going to be extreme very soon. It's getting very close to the tilting point. I guess the Supreme Court will say one thing, and the government will say another thing. Someone needs to rule the country, to lead the country.

BAR MEIR: It will be a problem because the army and the police, they will have to decide to whom they are listening, obeying. That's a problem.

ESTRIN: And, you know, Pien, there are worries that this could devolve into violence. It's a very unsettling time here.

HUANG: So, Daniel, the - Israel's president's warning of a possible civil war - do you think that that is, you know, realistic? Is it an overblown assessment? Like, what is the possibility of that happening at this moment?

ESTRIN: You know, in the meantime, the protests have been mostly, peaceful and the police have mostly been hands-off. But this is a very dizzying time, and protesters I meet on the streets are worried that this could escalate into some violence.

HUANG: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. He joined us from a protest in Tel Aviv. Daniel Estrin, thanks so much for joining us.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.