Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has dramatically broken ranks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, describing it as a matter of national security to pause the government’s drive to overhaul Israel’s court system.
Gallant’s Saturday night speech – when Netanyahu was out of the country on an official visit to the United Kingdom – made him the first government minister to call for the controversial legislation to be put on hold.
Gallant said the pause was needed “for the security of Israel.”
“Any manifestation of refusal that eats away at the strength of the IDF and harms the security system should be stopped immediately,” Gallant said, a reference to the refusal of some Israel Defense Forces reservists to train in protest at the government plans.
As he was delivering his speech, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were out across the country protesting against the plans for the 12th week in a row.
Gallant is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party. His comments open a rift in Israel’s already delicately balanced coalition government that could scupper the plans.
Under the proposals, the government would have control over the appointment of judges, and parliament would gain the power to override Supreme Court decisions.
The government argues the changes are essential to rein in the Supreme Court, which they see as insular, elitist, and no longer representative of the Israeli people. Opponents say the plans threaten the foundations of Israeli democracy.
The military reservists’ protest is seen as a particular worry for Israel’s government, as they are regularly called up to train and serve, even in peacetime.
Soon after the defense minister’s comments, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir called on Netanyahu to fire Gallant.
“Gallant gave in tonight to blackmail and threats from all those anarchists who call for resistance and use the [Israel Defense Forces] as a bargaining tool,” Gvir tweeted.
“Gallant was elected by the votes of right-wing voters and in practice promotes a left-wing agenda. At the moment of truth he collapsed under the pressure of the media and the protesters. I call on the Prime Minister to fire him immediately.”
Piling further pressure on Netanyahu, Israel’s High Court on Sunday gave him a week to a respond to a petition calling for him to be held in contempt of court.
The legal move by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel comes after the attorney general told Netanyahu he acted illegally and violated a court-imposed conflict of interest order by saying he would personally involve himself in the judicial overhaul.
Part of the bill – which effectively strips the courts of the power to declare a prime minister unfit for office – has already been pushed through.
Critics say Netanyahu is pushing through the changes because of his own ongoing corruption trial; Netanyahu denies this.
Netanyahu himself has given no indication he will back down. In a speech on Thursday he said he would address the concerns of “both sides,” but pledged to continue with the reform plans.
Likud lawmaker Danny Danon said it was too soon to know if there were enough rebels in the party to stop the legislation, telling CNN, “We will only know Monday,” when members of the party meet in the Knesset, or parliament.
Netanyahu and his allies control 64 seats in the 120-seat legislature, so in theory five Likud rebels could deprive the coalition of an absolute majority. But lawmakers can abstain or be absent, bringing down the number of votes a law needs in order to pass.
Or, as Danon put it to CNN: “You don’t really need 61.”