JERUSALEM — Israel’s defense minister, a senior ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called Saturday for a freeze on the government’s controversial attempt to remake the country’s judicial system, saying the massive backlash it has sparked was becoming a threat to the country’s security.
Two other members of Netanyahu’s Likud party immediately joined in the call to pause the judicial push, and at least one other was said to be considering it, according to Israeli media. The defections could endanger the ability of Netanyahu’s coalition of ultra-Orthodox and right-wing nationalist parties, which hold only a four-seat majority in the parliament, to ram through the package of legislation.
The defense minister, Yoav Gallant, has been signaling for days that he was uncomfortable with the growing number of military members who have joined in the mass protest movement against the judicial overhaul. Hundreds of reservists have pledged to boycott their regular training missions, and the Israel Defense Forces confirmed that the number of absentees was growing.
Gallant had said on Thursday that he would make a public statement about the effect the turmoil was having on Israel’s military readiness. Instead, he was summoned to Netanyahu’s office and, following their meeting, canceled his planned appearance. It was the prime minister who took to the podium for a prime-time television address Thursday, in which he reassured the country that the changes were necessary and that he would push through key parts as soon as next week.
Exactly 48 hours later, with Netanyahu in London, Gallant went public with his concerns. Saying that he still supported the need to revamp the court system, he acknowledged that “unprecedented feelings of anger, pain and disappointment have risen” within the military over the proposed changes to Israel’s balance of power.
“This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state,” he said in the statement. “For the sake of Israel’s security, for the sake of our sons and daughters, the legislative process should be stopped.”
The coalition has proposed remaking the courts to give them more power to override Supreme Court decisions and to pick judges and justices. The long-sought changes are needed, they say, because the courts have become too powerful at the expense of elected officials and are hopelessly biased toward the country’s left-wing elite.
Opponents say the moves are an attempt by extreme right-wing politicians to eliminate one of the only checks on their power, a shift that would allow them to make radical changes to society and tilt the country toward authoritarianism.
The proposals, introduced without warning in January just days after the new government took power, sparked an outpouring of condemnation at home and abroad. Street protests numbering in the tens of the thousands erupted in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and other cities that have only grown since. Massive crowds were gathered Saturday night in several cities as Gallant spoke.
Far-right members of the coalition quickly condemned the minister’s statement. Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an extremist settler leader whose party has called for the expulsion of “disloyal” Palestinians from Israel, called on Netanyahu to fire Gallant, according to media reports. The communications minister said his fellow Likud party member had “surrendered to pressure from the left.”
But other Likud leaders followed his lead: Yuli Edelstein, the former Knesset speaker who chairs the parliament’s committee on security and foreign affairs, and David Bitan, a Likud parliamentarian who has made his concerns public previously. At least one other was said to be wavering, according to Israeli media.
If all four voted against the bills, the coalition’s efforts could falter.
There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu’s office. The prime minister departed for London on Friday, where he was greeted by protesters and an admonition from British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the need to uphold “democratic values.”
Opposition leaders, however, hailed Gallant’s move. Former prime minister Yair Lapid said in a statement it was a “brave and important step for the security of the State of Israel.”