A miles-long column of antigovernment demonstrators marched into Jerusalem on Saturday evening, turning the main road to the city into a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags, to protest the far-right government’s plan to limit judicial power.
In temperatures that were at times close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, hundreds of the demonstrators had been marching since Tuesday night from Tel Aviv, a coastal city roughly 40 miles away, and had camped for four nights along the route. Many more joined them on subsequent days, and by Saturday the number of marchers had swelled to at least 20,000, despite the scorching heat.
By the time the march reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Saturday, the marchers were walking 10 abreast, forcing cars into a single lane of traffic. The column stretched for at least two miles and included people in motorized wheelchairs and at least one person on crutches.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” said Ilana Holzman, 65, a protester from Tel Aviv who had joined the march for its last leg on Saturday.
“I think this is the only place to be right now,” said Ms. Holzman. “Not at the beach and not in the air-conditioning. Here you see the people of Israel at their best. It’s terribly hot, but they are marching on.”
The unusual spectacle reflected the intensity of emotion coursing through Israeli society this weekend, as the ruling coalition prepares to pass a law in the coming days that would limit the ways in which the Supreme Court can overturn government decisions.
Negotiations to reach an 11th-hour compromise are still underway, and could result in the plan being watered down or postponed. But for now, lawmakers are expected to hold a binding vote on the law on Monday in Parliament, where the ruling coalition has a four-seat majority.
The law would prevent the court from overruling the national government using the legal standard of “reasonableness,” a concept that judges previously used to block ministerial appointments and to contest planning decisions, among other government measures.
The government and its supporters say that the new legislation will improve democracy by restoring the balance of power between elected lawmakers and unelected judges, and giving lawmakers greater freedom to implement the policies that the majority of voters chose at the ballot box.
“The proper balance between the authorities has been disturbed over the past decades,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech Thursday. “This balance must be restored so that the democratic choice of the people may find expression by the government that was elected by the people.”
The court could still use other legal standards to oppose government decisions.
But large parts of the country, including the marchers on Saturday, say the legislation undermines democracy because it will remove a key check on government overreach. They say that this might allow the government — the most ultranationalist and ultraconservative in Israeli history — to build a much less pluralist society.
“We’re marching because the government, to make a long story short, is trying to turn us into a dictatorship,” said Navot Silberstein, 31, shortly after having reached the top of the steep hills west of Jerusalem on Friday evening.
“We won’t live in a country where the government has too much power over us,” Mr. Silberstein added, his shirt drenched in sweat after walking for hours in the sun.
This disagreement is part of a much wider and long-running social dispute about the nature and future of Israeli society. The ruling coalition and its base generally have a more religious and conservative vision, and see the court as an obstacle to that goal. The opposition tends to have a more secular and diverse vision, and consider the court as a standard-bearer for its cause.
Some protesters fear that the legislation will make it easier for the government to enforce ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice on public life, for example by forcing shops to close on the Sabbath or enforcing gender segregation in public spaces. Others fear the law would make it easier for government leaders to get away with corruption, or for Mr. Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for bribery and fraud, to escape punishment, a claim he strongly denies.
“The fear is that our country won’t look like it looks today,” Ms. Holzman said of the judicial overhaul plan.
Thousands of military reservists have either threatened to pull out of reserve duty if the law is passed, or have already suspended their service in protest, endangering the Israeli military’s combat readiness.
On Saturday evening, a group of former senior Israeli security leaders released a joint letter calling on Mr. Netanyahu to postpone a vote on the law unless it was revised by consensus, citing the risks to Israel’s security. Signing the letter were three former military chiefs; five former heads of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service; three former directors of the Shin Bet, the internal security agency; and four former police commissioners.
Similar mass protests in March prompted the government to suspend, at least for now, other planned judicial changes. One of the suspended plans would have allowed Parliament to overrule the court’s decisions; another would have given the government more sway over who gets to be a Supreme Court justice.