Dichter, possibly in line for defense chief seat, says he will back overhaul

Declaration of ex-Shin Bet chief’s full support for court-curbing legislation follows reports that he’d joined calls for talks; Likud MK Dallal also won’t break with party

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Avi Dichter, left, at an FADC meeting in the Knesset, November 19, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Avi Dichter, left, at an FADC meeting in the Knesset, November 19, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Two Likud Knesset members who had signaled they could vote against parts of the government’s judicial overhaul reversed course on Sunday and promised to toe the party line, seemingly quashing a brewing internal rebellion before it could get off the ground.

Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, who is reportedly being considered as a replacement for Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and freshman MK Eli Dallal both said that they would vote in favor of various bills being pushed through the Knesset as part of the government’s plan to substantially constrain the authority of the judiciary and give the coalition near-complete control over the appointment of judges.

After Gallant gave a televised speech Saturday night calling for the overhaul drive to be halted so talks could take place, Dichter was reported to also support the defense chief’s call for a pause, having previously raised concerns over the scope and speed of the overhaul. But on Sunday morning he issued a statement offering unequivocal support for the judicial shakeup.

“I’m well aware of public concerns, but — so there’s no doubt — I am still in favor. The judicial reform is necessary and it will be implemented,” Dichter’s statement read.

He noted that he had voted in favor of parts of the overhaul before and would continue to do so in line with party discipline, adding that he was in sync with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

“My Likud colleagues know well that I won’t lend a hand to Likud’s ouster,” he added.

The statement followed close on the heels of the reports that Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet, had spoken to Netanyahu about taking over the defense portfolio. According to accounts in Hebrew-language media, Dichter had assured Netanyahu that he would vote in favor of the overhaul.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant seen during a tour near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, March 16, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Netanyahu, who was returning from a trip to London Sunday morning, has yet to comment publicly on Gallant’s comments but is thought to be mulling firing him or threatening to do so if he does not line up behind the government.

Likud MK Eli Dallal also clarified his support for the overhaul Sunday, reportedly sending a message to fellow party lawmakers saying he would vote along with the faction.

“For the sake of clarity, I am for the reform. Last week I expressed my opinion at a Likud faction meeting and suggested a freeze until after the [Passover] recess,” he wrote, according to Channel 12 news. “I will act according to the decisions of the faction.”

Dichter had reportedly told the same Likud faction meeting that a coalition that elects “the head of an executive, legislative and judicial authority is distorted.” And on Saturday, he was reported to have told Netanyahu in the course of a lengthy conversion that “There will be no way back” if the legislation passes this coming week.

On Saturday night, Gallant gave a televised address in which he warned that a societal rift over the issue was damaging the army and called for his colleagues to suspend the overhaul push and negotiate a compromise package that has broad support. The dispute “poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state,” said the defense minister.

His stance drew public support from Likud MKs Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan, raising hopes within the opposition that an internal Likud rebellion could keep the coalition from being able to pass the overhaul legislation.

But the statements from Dichter and Dallal, reminders of the fealty Netanyahu can extract from allies even under duress, likely mean that the coalition will still have the needed numbers to pass the bills.

Likud Knesset member Eli Dallal (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Dichter’s decision to back the overhaul, widely seen as a bid to secure the defense minister post, drew widespread criticism, with protest organizers planning a demonstration outside his Ashkelon home for 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

“To be defense minister, Avi Dichter endangers Israel’s security and turns his back on the soldiers,” opposition chief Yair Lapid tweeted. “He knows the coup endangers our international immunity and the security of Israeli citizens, but the plum job trumps all.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of former top generals signed their names to a letter backing Gallant and thanking him for “sending a message of leadership, responsibility and for seeing the wide tapestry of all the aspects of national security.”

“Your words were an expression of leadership with the strength to lower the flames of division and even to prevent a disaster, and contributes to creating an atmosphere of trust fitting for compromise and for the existence of a respectful constructive dialogue, the basis for restoring trust,” they wrote.

The missive was signed by a number of generals who have held top command posts in the military’s highest echelons, including former air force head Eliezer Shkedi, former navy chief Eliezer Marom and ex-military intelligence boss Aharon Ze’ev-Farkash.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on March 25, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Gallant, Edelstein and Bitan have not said how they will vote on the overhaul law bills if they are brought for their final Knesset plenum readings this coming week, as planned. Four rebel lawmakers voting against the legislation would deny the 64-member coalition a majority in the 120-member parliament. Even if they abstain, it would become far easier for the High Court to strike down an amendment to one of the quasi-constitutional Basic Laws if it passes with the votes of fewer than 61 MKs, according to Hebrew media.

Amid massive protests bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, Netanyahu said in a speech Thursday night that he would soften parts of the planned shakeup going forward. But he also said the Knesset would vote in the coming days on a 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 mentioned as a potential target. The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convened Sunday morning to continue the process of preparing and approving the bill for its second and third (final) Knesset readings.

Opponents of the overhaul have drawn a line in the sand on the appointments bill, saying it will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character.

On Sunday morning Edelstein hinted that he could vote no on overhaul legislation, telling Army Radio that his absences during votes on earlier stages of the legislative process had not been a coincidence.

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