ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Report: PM won't convene cabinet to discuss security impact

PM said to mull firing dissenting defense chief Gallant, tapping Dichter instead

Dichter, a former Shin Bet chief, says he will back the judicial overhaul despite reportedly supporting a slowdown of the legislative onrush

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrives for a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrives for a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly readying to fire his defense chief after the senior minister publicly called for the government to halt its judicial overhaul blitz, breaking with the coalition and exposing internal misgivings over the push.

In place of Yoav Gallant, Netanyahu is reportedly considering tapping Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, a former Shin Bet chief who has also reportedly backed suspending the overhaul push but who vowed Sunday to vote for it.

In a televised statement Saturday night, Gallant urged his colleagues in Likud and the other four parties allied with Netanyahu to halt the legislative drive for several weeks to allow for compromise talks with the opposition.

The former general said the deep national rift formed over the issue had seeped into the military, eroding its strength.

“This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state. I will not lend my hand to this,” he said in the prime-time address.

While the position expressed by Gallant received public support from two other Likud politicians and reportedly from Dichter as well, others in the party castigated him, and Otzma Yehudit coalition party leader Itamar Ben Gvir demanded that he be fired.

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Avi Dichter, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

According to several reports in Hebrew-language media, Netanyahu is considering either sacking Gallant or presenting him with a threat of being booted from the cabinet should he not vote in favor of the judicial overhaul in the Knesset.

Dichter spoke overnight with Netanyahu and assured him he would back the measures in the plenum this week, according to the reports.

His office later put out a statement in which he offered full-throated support for the overhaul and promised to vote for it.

“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,” the statement read.

According to Channel 12 news, Dichter had expressed misgivings about the effort to shove the package through Knesset without seeking compromise, joining Gallant and fellow Likud MKs Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan in backing a slowdown.

“There will be no way back,” Dichter was quoted as saying by the channel.

The premier, who was flying back to Israel from a weekend excursion to London, had yet to publicly comment on Gallant’s statement as of Sunday mid-morning.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at Downing Street in London, March 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

He was set to convene coalition heads for a summit at 3 p.m. Sunday, Hebrew-language media reported.

Gallant reportedly came out with his criticism after demanding several times that Netanyahu convene the cabinet for a discussion of the security implications of the judicial overhaul and being met with repeated refusals, according to a report Sunday in Israel Hayom.

The report, which was largely sympathetic to Gallant, included criticism of Netanyahu from an unnamed senior source who said his refusal to convene the cabinet was “irresponsible and of questionable legality.”

The coalition is hoping to pass several bills making up part of the overhaul package before the Knesset breaks for Passover early next month.

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

While it has mostly been able to blow past the objections of a loud but largely hamstrung opposition, the current of unease with the plan exposed by Gallant’s speech has thrown into doubt whether the coalition will have enough support for the measures to pass.

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 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.

Netanyahu spoke after summoning Gallant following widespread reports that the defense minister planned Thursday to hold a press conference in which he would have publicly called for a halt to the legislation. Gallant shelved those initial plans, only coming out with his criticism on Saturday night.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, center, speaks to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir after a Knesset vote in Jerusalem, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Neither Gallant nor the other MKs have said how they would 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. If they were to merely abstain the coalition would still have the votes to pass the law, but it would be easier for the High Court to strike down an amendment to one of the quasi-constitutional Basic Laws if it were passed with fewer than 61 MKs, experts believe.

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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