Pentagon chief presses Gallant on importance of democratic consensus

Defense minister responds to Lloyd Austin with vow that ‘Israel is a strong democracy and will remain this way,’ according to Israeli readout of phone call

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meet in Brussels on June 15, 2023. (Elad Malcha/Defense Ministry)
File: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meet in Brussels on June 15, 2023. (Elad Malcha/Defense Ministry)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday that securing “broad consensus through political dialogue” is a “critical element of a resilient democracy,” in the latest remarks from a Biden administration official following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition’s passing of the first piece of legislation from its judicial overhaul.

The message was passed along by Austin during a call with Gallant, according to a US readout.

Meanwhile, Gallant’s office said the defense minister stressed to Austin that “Israel is a strong democracy and will remain this way in the future.”

According to the Israeli readout on their phone call, the two discussed “regional challenges and the importance of the IDF’s operational readiness,” with the defense minister stressing that his “current priority is to ensure unity within the IDF’s ranks and to maintain the readiness and capabilities of the military, in the face of a range of security threats.”

Gallant was referring to threats by reservists to end their voluntary duty in protest of the government’s controversial judicial overhaul.

The comments from Austin, whose talks with Israelis usually center on Iran, the Palestinians and security challenges, underlined US President Joe Biden’s strong opposition to the judicial overhaul being pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

The Biden administration has repeatedly spoken out against the government’s unilateral push to remake the judiciary; warnings against the legislative blitz and failed efforts to restart talks were placed center stage during a White House visit by President Isaac Herzog last week.

Gallant has been among the coalition’s loudest voices pushing for compromise talks, but has also continued to back his coalition’s push even as it plows ahead unilaterally.

Austin “also expressed concern regarding the urgent need for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take meaningful steps to ensure stability in the West Bank,” the US readout stated.

Demonstrators stand amid the traffic as they block the Ayalon Highway during a protest rally against the government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Netanyahu’s cabinet last month passed a decision that principally backs efforts to prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, but has yet to implement any specific actions and has advanced a record amount of settlement construction that critics say significantly weakens the PA.

“Austin called for Palestinian leaders to condemn terrorism and take active steps to prevent violence. He urged Minister Gallant to address extremist settler violence against Palestinian civilians and continue the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s efforts to improve economic opportunities for Palestinians in the West Bank,” the Department of Defense said.

According to the Israeli readout, the pair “discussed IDF activities in Jenin. Minister Gallant emphasized that the fulfillment of PA activities in the territories under its responsibility, is a security interest for Israel. With this being said, he highlighted that the IDF will operate as required to defend Israeli citizens.”

Tensions have remained high in the West Bank for the past year and a half, with the military carrying out near-nightly raids, amid a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks. There has also been a noted rise in Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians.

Israeli security forces at the scene of a terror shooting, near the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, July 16, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

On Sunday, US President Joe Biden said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline coalition should not rush their “divisive” bid to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, given the numerous threats and challenges Israel faces, and should instead work to build broad consensus for legal reform.

A day later, the Knesset gave its final approval to a law that prevents courts from reviewing the “reasonableness” of government and ministerial decisions, the first major bill of the government’s judicial overhaul to pass.

Hundreds of thousands of people fanned out in Tel Aviv throughout Monday and overnight, burning tires, setting off fireworks, and waving national flags, in protest of the bill passing. In Jerusalem, mounted police and water cannons spraying foul-smelling liquid cleared protesters from a main highway. At least 40 people were arrested by police in protests across the country.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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