Israel protests: Why are Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial reforms so unpopular?

 Protesters light flares during a march against government's justice system reform plans in Tel Aviv - ABIR SULTAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock
Protesters light flares during a march against government's justice system reform plans in Tel Aviv - ABIR SULTAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

Why are these huge protests happening in Israel?

The protests are mainly centred on Benjamin Netanyahu's plans for a major overhaul of the legal system. Since Mr Netanyahu returned to power in January, Israelis have staged weekly demonstrations across the nation calling for the package to be scrapped.

Most of the protesters come from Israel's secular middle class, while religious conservatives who backed Mr Netanyahu and his far-Right allies in last November's elections generally support the reforms.

However, recent opinion polls suggest that the reforms have grown unpopular across Israeli society, with a majority favouring some sort of compromise rather than a radical legal overhaul.

Why are the reforms so unpopular?

Critics of the reforms say they will transform Israel into a dictatorship by neutering the supreme court and ramping up the government's influence over the appointment of judges.

Mr Netanyahu's allies have also signalled that they could help to scrap his ongoing trial on corruption and fraud charges, which he denies. Many protests suspect that this, and not the reforms to parts of the Israeli legal system, is the real purpose behind the overhaul.

The reforms have also been sharply criticised by Israeli tech and business leaders who warn that they will scare off investment and jeopardise the country's "startup nation" label.

Why caused Sunday's escalation?

On Sunday, Israel saw a massive escalation to the protest movement as tens of thousands spontaneously took to the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities. This time they called not just for an end to the legal reforms but the resignation of Mr Netanyahu himself.

Their ire was sparked by Mr Netanyahu making the shock decision to sack his defence minister, Yoav Galant, after he publicly criticised the reforms.

Mr Galant had raised concerns that the package was undermining Israeli security, in part because hundreds of reservists - who play a key role in Israel's defence capabilities - were threatening to stop reporting for duty over them.

Security is sacrosanct in Israel, and the notion that a leader would sack his own defence minister in an attempt to force through reforms that could hurt national security is virtually horrifying to many Israelis.

Is Mr Netanayhu going to back down?

Israeli media reports say he is due to announce a statement freezing the reforms later this morning. This would be a huge u-turn from the prime minister, one that puts the stability of his coalition at risk.

It will also alienate his far-Right extremist allies in government, who have mainly been pushing for the reforms to be imposed despite widespread public opposition.

Will that calm down the situation?

A freeze on the reforms only kicks the can down the road, probably until May. But that would allow plenty of time for some type of compromise to be hammered out with a chance of appeasing all sides.

While many protesters do now appear to want Mr Netanyahu gone, their huge scale is largely due to opposition to the reforms themselves.

But Israel is extremely tense this week and there are concerns of the situation deteriorating into the territory of popular uprisings or even civil warfare.