‘For the sake of Israel’s security:’ Defence minister Gallant calls for end to judicial overhaul

Israel’s defence minister is calling on the government to halt legislation on controversial changes to the judiciary, saying the bitter dispute over the measures poses an ” immediate and tangible danger to the security of the State”.

Yoav Gallant’s plea comes after three months of weekly mass protests that have seen more than half a million people take to the streets to oppose reforms critics say will undermine the independence of the judiciary. 

Gallant became the first ally in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to break ranks on Saturday as he called for an immediate end to the far-right government’s contentious plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary.

In a televised address, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant expressed concern over the turmoil within Israel’s military that he said posed a threat to the country’s security. Citing the need for dialogue with the opposition, Gallant asked that Netanyahu’s coalition wait until after Parliament reconvenes from its holiday break next month before pushing ahead with its divisive plan to weaken the Supreme Court.

“For the sake of Israel’s security, for the sake of our sons and daughters, the legislative process must be stopped at this time,” Gallant, a top official in Netanyahu’s Likud party, said.

National crisis

The government’s plan to increase its control over the judiciary has sparked the largest protest movement in Israeli history and triggered a grave national crisis, including even warnings from the president of civil war.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets as they have every week since the start of the year — in many cases bringing parts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to a standstill. It has also raised the hackles of Israel’s closest allies, testing its ties with the United States.

Police unleashed water cannons on masses of protesters who whistled and waved Israeli flags as they marched down Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. “Shame! Shame!” they chanted in Hebrew. As the protesters advanced, officers on horseback violently rammed into the crowds. “Haven’t the Jewish people suffered enough?” read one protester’s sign.

The judicial proposal has drawn intensifying criticism from across Israeli society — including from former prime ministers and defence officials, and high-tech business leaders.

“The events taking place in Israeli society do not spare the Israel Defense Forces — from all sides, feelings of anger, pain and disappointment arise, with an intensity I have never encountered before,” Gallant said. “I see how the source of our strength is being eroded.”

Military stability

In security-minded Israel, the unrest has prompted concern about the Israeli military’s stability as it maintains its 55-year-old occupation of the West Bank and faces threats from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group and from its archenemy Iran.

Violence both in Israel and the occupied West Bank has escalated over the past few weeks to heights unseen in years. 

“This is a clear, immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state,” Gallant said, referring to the judicial plans. “I will not take part in this.”

Gallant stopped short of saying what, if anything, he would do if Netanyahu ignored his plea. But his strong statement of concern for the polarized nation marked the first crack in Netanyahu’s coalition, the most right-wing and religiously conservative government in Israeli history.

Gallant has already met with Netanyahu, reportedly to voice concerns that protests by Israeli reservists and other security forces were hurting Israel’s international image and power of deterrence. After the meeting, Netanyahu nonetheless announced that he would become directly involved in the overhaul, declaring his hands “untied.”

Israel’s attorney general

Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and dismisses

Supporters of the judicial overhaul — which includes plans to increase the coalition’s control over judicial appointments and diminish the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws passed by Parliament — say it will restore power to elected legislators and make the courts less interventionist. Critics say the move upends Israel’s system of checks and balances and pushes it toward autocracy.

In spite of the backlash, Netanyahu has dismissed offers for a compromise, including from Israel’s mainly ceremonial president earlier this month.

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