Israel’s ruling party erupted in internal strife Thursday evening at the end of a day of massive nationwide protests, after word emerged that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was set to hold a televised press conference in which he was widely reported to be planning to call for an immediate halt to the coalition’s bid to overhaul the judiciary.
In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned the minister from Tel Aviv to his Jerusalem office amid public recriminations against Gallant by Likud lawmakers. After the brief meeting, Gallant called off the press conference for the time being, saying he had presented the premier “with the impact of the legislative processes on the IDF and the defense establishment.”
However, “At the request of the prime minister, and in light of his planned speech this evening, the defense minister is postponing [his statement],” Gallant’s office said.
Minutes later, Netanyahu gave a televised address himself, in which he vowed to press ahead with legislation that will politicize judicial appointments and which the coalition is expected to try to pass into law next week. But he also attempted to assuage the opposition’s fears the legal shakeup will turn Israel into a dictatorship, insisting he would intervene in the legislation and ensure it is balanced and does not grant the coalition undue power.
Gallant’s office had announced on Thursday afternoon that he would give an address at 7:30 p.m. Hebrew media reported that facing growing alarm in the military over the potential disintegration of the military’s reserve forces amid the changes to Israel’s balance of powers, Gallant had decided to issue a public call to stop the process.
Around the time Gallant’s office announced the press conference, Netanyahu also announced one for 8 p.m., later pushed back to 8:40 p.m. Reports indicated Netanyahu had not been aware of Gallant’s plans and was caught by surprise.
Initially, the media had speculated that the two were coordinated, and that Netanyahu might himself announce a halt or delay in legislation, but sources close to the premier quickly stressed that this was not his intent.
The premier, who was set to fly to London on a state visit Thursday evening, delayed the trip to 4 a.m. amid the fracas.
Gallant has reportedly threatened to resign his post recently over concerns for the brewing crisis in the military and fears that it could be beset by mass desertions and refusals to serve, undermining Israel’s military deterrence and preparedness, along with its ties to key allies including the US. IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has issued similar warnings over the past few weeks, telling Netanyahu earlier this month that he was worried by the spread of refusal to serve to the point where it “could harm the IDF’s operational capacity.”
In another “difficult” conversation on Wednesday, Halevi told the premier that should his coalition pass its legislative package, the crisis within the military will likely deepen and expand.
Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar was also said to warn Netanyahu that Israel was heading into a very dangerous place and presented him “with a very dark” picture of the consequences of the overhaul in a meeting Thursday. “The combination of the security threats and the social situation in the context of the [judicial overhaul] legislation are taking Israel to a dangerous place,” Channel 12 quoted Bar as saying.
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.
Sara Netanyahu gives rare public statement
Netanyahu’s speech came amid a “day of paralysis” staged by masses of protesters on Thursday, with rallies held throughout the country calling on the hardline Netanyahu government to stop its push to bring judicial appointments under political control and to limit the powers of the High Court of Justice.
After news broke of the forthcoming statements by Gallant and Netanyahu, Israeli stock indices closed higher and the shekel appreciated more than 2% against the US dollar. That was after the local currency weakened more than 6% in February amid growing investor concern over the government’s plans.
The protest movement against the judicial revamp has grown over the past three months to comprise large swaths of Israeli society. This has increasingly included top officers in reserves forces — a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — who have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which they charge the country will become under the government’s judicial overhaul plan. The weekly mass protests also come alongside a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders, Nobel-winning economists, prominent security officials, and many more.
On Thursday, police arrested dozens of demonstrators and used water cannons and mounted officers to disperse protesters in Tel Aviv and Haifa. The arrests of several central protest leaders led a number of opposition figures and politicians to decry “political arrests.”
Amid the rising tensions, the premier’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, issued a rare public statement on Thursday in which she called for all parties to “calm the waters and work together for a broad agreement among the people of Israel.”
Sara, widely seen as wielding great influence over her husband, said most Israelis, including herself, want “dialogue, unity, and compromise.”
But she also called on law enforcement to act with “all means” against protesters who break the law, although she said that “a small element of violent anarchists” did not represent all anti-government protesters.
Likud MKs and Otzma Yehudit assail Gallant
When news broke of Gallant’s ostensible plans to challenge the premier on the overhaul, members of Likud were far less conciliatory.
Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan called on any Likud colleagues who support halting the judicial overhaul to quit, and said any delay would betray the mandate she asserted Likud had received from its voters.
“All Likud MKs who are planning to stop the legislation are invited to resign. Preferably today, even better right now,” she tweeted.
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, who earlier this month told protesting reservists to “go to hell” in a Purim message, voiced strict opposition to any possible compromise or halt to the judicial overhaul legislation.
“Such a shameful withdrawal from our commitments will lead to the intensification of the protest, to the halting of any further initiatives that we would like to promote in any field, and in the end, God forbid, to the dissolution of the government and the rise of a new disastrous government that would be the worst we have ever seen,” he tweeted.
Likud MK Boaz Bismuth said the party didn’t have the mandate “to stop the legislation” and that no MK had the mandate to “operate against the decision of the party,” which earlier this week firmly backed a bill to assert significant political control over judicial appointments.
Moshe Saada, a Likud MK who is a fervent backer of the judiciary revamp, also tweeted that “promises must be kept.”
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.
“This is a minister who entered [the government] with the votes of the right-wing voters, but in practice runs a different policy,” the party charged, adding that his alleged intention to urge a halt to the overhaul push was “meant to prevent the right from realizing its policies.”
The ultranationalist party took aim at Gallant’s work as defense minister in the three-month-old government, saying he was “responsible for the lack of response in Gaza, for the restrained policy toward terrorism and for administrative arrests of right-wing activists” — a reference to the arrests late last month of suspects in a settler rampage in the West Bank town of Huwara.
Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Wasserlauf called Gallant a “trojan horse” in the coalition in a Twitter post.
Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key member of Netanyahu’s hardline coalition, issued a statement saying it would back whatever decision Netanyahu makes.
Party leader Aryeh Deri had consulted with Shas spiritual leaders and “it was decided that Shas will support any decision” by Netanyahu and the Likud party, according to the statement.
United Torah Judaism, the coalition’s second Haredi party, said it backed the overhaul but would also follow the premier, whichever way he goes.