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New York Times
25 Mar 2023

NextImg:Israel’s Defense Minister Says Government Should Halt Contentious Judicial Plan

JERUSALEM — The Israeli defense minister, Yoav Gallant, called on Saturday night for his government to suspend its contentious plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary, arguing that the turmoil it has unleashed within Israeli society and the military has become a threat to Israel’s national security.

“The rift within our society is widening and penetrating the Israel Defense Forces,” Mr. Gallant said in a televised speech. He added: “This is a clear and immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state. I shall not be a party to this.”

Mr. Gallant’s announcement set the stage for what is expected to be one of the most dramatic weeks in Israeli history. The far-right governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has a majority of just four seats, is expected to hold a final vote in Parliament early next week on the first step in its overhaul plan: a bill that would give the government greater control over appointments to the Supreme Court.

The government’s proposal has led to weeks of mass protests, which continued on Saturday night; warnings of political violence and civil war; and unrest within the military, particularly among reservists. Thousands of reserve soldiers have said they would not report for volunteer duty if the overhaul goes ahead, or have already withdrawn from service.

Mr. Gallant is the first minister to break ranks and call for a freeze to the legislation. His intervention raised questions about whether enough like-minded governing lawmakers would now follow suit and prevent the law’s passage through Parliament. Two other governing lawmakers, David Bitan and Yuli Edelstein, swiftly tweeted their support for Mr. Gallant, and a handful of others were also thought to be wavering.

Credit...Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Most governing lawmakers are nevertheless firmly behind the proposal, which they say would bolster democracy by giving the elected government primacy over unelected judges. But critics fear the measure would blunt one of Israel’s few checks on government overreach, potentially paving the way for authoritarian rule.

Mr. Gallant said he was broadly supportive of reforming the judiciary but felt that the current proposals had proved too divisive and should be paused to allow for dialogue over the next month of religious and national holidays.

“For the sake of Israel’s security, for our daughters and sons, we must stop now the legislative process at this time — and allow the Israeli nation to celebrate Passover and Independence Day,” Mr. Gallant said.

Mr. Gallant’s intervention came after warnings by the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, that the number of reservists reporting for duty this month had fallen to a point that the military was on the verge of reducing the scope of certain operations.

The military high command is also concerned about the possibility of resignations from full-time soldiers.

The military has declined to make public a full accounting of the drop in reservists reporting for duty this month. But it confirmed that 200 reserve pilots — a significant proportion of the Israeli Air Force’s pilots, though not a majority — signed a letter on Friday saying that, in protest of the judicial proposal, they would not report for duty for two weeks.

Carol Sutherland contributed reporting from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.