Sa'ar urges Gallant, Edelstein, Barkat to 'prevent disaster'

Defense minister said to warn PM he won’t back overhaul legislation in current form

TV report says Netanyahu asked Gallant for a few days to try to resolve crisis surrounding judicial shakeup; minister said to caution refusal could spread to active duty personnel

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with his expected defense minister Yoav Gallant in the Knesset on December 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Yoav Gallant in the Knesset on December 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During his much-publicized meeting with the prime minister Thursday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned Benjamin Netanyahu that he will not vote in favor of the bill to assert political control over the country’s Judicial Selection Committee if it is brought to a vote next week in its present form, according to a Friday report.

Without citing sources, Channel 12 said Gallant cautioned that if the bill — a core tenet of the government’s judicial overhaul — is not amended or a compromise is not reached with the opposition in the coming days, he will not back the legislation, and will either abstain or vote against it.

The report said Gallant has no intention of resigning his post, despite his objections.

It said Netanyahu had asked the minister to give him a few days to try to resolve the burgeoning crisis, to which Gallant agreed.

Gallant is widely reported to have planned Thursday to hold a press conference in which he would have publicly called for a halt to the legislation, over his intense concerns about deep damage to the military’s cohesion as growing numbers of reservists warn they will not serve if Israel’s democracy is harmed.

Channel 12’s Nir Dvori said the minister presented a “very worrying” picture to the premier on the state of the military and Israel’s security situation, saying the threat of growing refusal was now no longer limited to reservists, but could spread to conscripts and career officers.

Gallant was said to have noted to the premier that dire forecasts by IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi on the deepening divisions within the country’s defensive force had so far proven true.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi (left), chief of the Northern Command Ori Gordin (right), and commander of the 91st territorial division Shai Klapper (back to camera), at the Har Adir lookout point on the Lebanon border, March 16, 2023. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

The New York Times reported on Friday that Halevi has warned government leaders that the army is on the verge of reducing the scope of certain operations due to the large number of reservists refusing to report for duty.

“I didn’t fold and I haven’t yet spoken out publicly,” the network quoted Gallant as saying, citing unidentified associates of the minister. “I’m prepared to take a bullet for the country.”

After word got out Thursday about Gallant’s planned press conference, and before he put it off, the minister was met with a torrent of criticism from other coalition members including members of Likud, who turned to social media to excoriate him for what they painted as a betrayal of right-wing voters and a capitulation to anti-government protesters. The far-right Otzma Yehudit party issued a direct broadside against Gallant, saying he had “removed himself from the right-wing camp” and was trying to cheat voters.

“Unlike others, I have not yet given up on my priorities,” Channel 12 cited Gallant as saying. “First the state, then the IDF. In my estimation, the prime minister’s inner circle has not internalized the grave security situation.”

The network also asserted, again without sourcing, that Likud MK Yuli Edelstein and potentially others have considered voicing clear opposition to the overhaul in its current form, and might do so if Gallant speaks up.

Currently, the government is pushing forward with its legislative plans. Netanyahu said in a speech Thursday night that he would soften parts of the shakeup going forward, but also said it would vote to pass next week the bill to put key Supreme Court appointments, including its presidency, directly in coalition control. It is not yet clear when the vote will be held, though Tuesday has been posited as a potential target.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the nation on the judicial overhaul on March 23, 2023. (Channel 12/ Screencapture)

Opponents of the overhaul have drawn a line in the sand on that bill, saying it will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. In response, protest leaders on Friday announced an unprecedented nationwide “week of paralysis” to upend daily life in the country, including mass protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The overhaul has been met with increasing alarm and objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders, Nobel-winning economists, prominent security officials, and many more. This week top Finance Ministry officials warned of deep and lasting damage to the economy if the changes pass in their current form.

“We’re going into the most fateful week in the history of Israel,” protest leaders said in a statement Friday. “This destructive government is tearing the nation apart and dismantling the military and the economy.

Thousands of Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“Facing the attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship, millions will take to the streets to defend the State of Israel and the Declaration of Independence,” the statement said. “Every citizen who wants to live in a democracy must come out to the streets and oppose the dictatorship at all costs.”

Netanyahu also said Thursday that due to the crisis, he would henceforth ignore the 2020 conflict of interest deal that forbids him from direct involvement in the overhaul amid his ongoing corruption trial, and deeply involve himself in the unfolding, deeply controversial legislation. Netanyahu’s announcement came hours after the Knesset passed a law to shield him from being removed from office for breaking its boundaries.

Setting up a full-on confrontation with the prime minister, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Friday morning informed Netanyahu that he had violated the conflict of interest agreement and that this and any further involvement by him in the coalition’s judicial overhaul would be “illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest.”

On Friday night, as the prime minister was in London, a senior Israeli official traveling with Netanyahu told reporters there was “no conflict of interest.”

“In one of the worst crises the nation has seen, it is inconceivable that the prime minister will be on the sidelines,” he said. The official insisted the prime minister “was looking for any path, any partner” for compromise on the overhaul.”

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara seen during a welcome ceremony for her in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022. (Courtesy: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to Channel 12 Friday, former justice minister Gideon Sa’ar of the National Unity party said he advised “not to scorn” the attorney general’s letter. “Any person acting in a conflict of interest is breaking the law. He will be exposed to a criminal investigation… and contempt of court.”

On the state of internal Likud opposition to the advancing legislation, Sa’ar said “there are a number of people in Likud who understand what is happening to the country.

“I call on all these people — on Yoav Gallant, on Yuli Edelstein, on Nir Barkat, on others in Likud who I know care and understand the situation… They won’t be able to stay where Bibi is taking the country… but they can stop it, they can prevent a terrible disaster.”

Officials in the office of National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, a key member of the opposition who also served as defense minister and as IDF chief, said Thursday that he had been holding talks with coalition MKs in Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties, including with Gallant, in a bid to prevent irreversible damage to democracy and civil war, and to maintain the security of the country and its economy.

Gantz stressed to them that halting the overhaul legislation was key to bringing the crisis to an end, the officials said.

MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his address to the nation Thursday, Netanyahu said his government will continue to charge ahead with the plan “responsibly.”

“Until today my hands were tied,” Netanyahu said. “So tonight I announce to you, no more.”

Confirming his intention to get actively involved, Netanyahu added that he was “putting all other issues aside” and “will do everything I can to find a solution for the sake of our people, our state.”

Opposition leaders have said they will not negotiate on the shakeup until the coalition takes a legislative pause, and will not engage during the Knesset’s upcoming April break if the judicial appointments law passes first.

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