Dichter reported to back pause, but makes no statement

Two Likud MKs back Gallant’s call to pause overhaul; others urge PM to fire him

Opposition welcomes ‘brave’ step, seeks more rebels to join DM’s plea for dialogue, as ministers accuse him of ‘surrender’; turmoil could threaten coalition majority in key votes

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on March 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on March 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Internal divisions within the ruling Likud party came to the fore on Saturday night in the wake of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s call for the government to temporarily halt its judicial overhaul legislation to allow for compromise talks. At least two Likud MKs backed Gallant, and a third reportedly did so, while other coalition members were enraged and called for his sacking.

Addressing the nation on Saturday night, Gallant broke ranks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reiterating the need for legal reforms but declaring his support for a temporary stop to the judicial overhaul’s legislative process — which is due to intensify this week with final votes on a highly controversial law handing the coalition complete control over the selection of most judges.

Gallant urged the legislation to be frozen until after Independence Day, which will be held on this year on April 26. Since the Knesset will be on recess for the entire month of April, in effect this would mean delaying this coming week’s votes to meet a key demand by the opposition, which has demanded a halt to the overhaul process as a precondition to any talks on a more broadly accepted judicial reform.

The defense minister, who cited “tangible danger” to state security as a result of the societal rift created by the coalition’s plan, immediately received the express backing of fellow Likud MKs Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan.

Edelstein, chair of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he thanked Gallant for “joining the path I’ve been leading for weeks.”

“The majority of the people want and understand the need for changes in the judicial system, but this must be done with patience, dialogue and broad discourse in order to reach a broad consensus,” Edelstein said.

Bitan similarly reiterated his earlier calls for the legislation to be stopped and “immediate negotiations started,” adding that he “backs the words of my friend, the defense minister.”

Multiple Hebrew media reports Saturday said that a third party member, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, had recently spoken with Netanyahu and other Likud MKs and similarly asked them to stop the judicial overhaul bills until after Independence Day.

“There will be no way back” if the legislation passes this coming week, Dichter was quoted as saying by Channel 12 news.

Dichter did not comment Saturday night, however.

Left: Likud MK Yuli Edelstein at an event for the Hebrew Bible “Codex Sassoon”, at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv March 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90). Center: Minister of Agriculture Avi Dichter arrives for a group picture of the new government at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right: David Bitan, chairman of the Economic committee leads a Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90).

Neither Gallant nor the other MKs said whether they would vote for or against overhaul law bills if they are nevertheless brought for their final Knesset plenum readings this coming week, as planned. Four rebel lawmakers who vote 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 Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws if it passes with the votes of fewer than 61 MKs, according to Hebrew media.

Gallant’s call also drew support from the head of the powerful Histadrut national trade union, Arnon Bar-David, who urged “all sides to show responsibility and leadership” and called on Netanyahu to “stop and reunite the people.”

Powerful Likud figure Haim Bibas, the mayor of Modiin and head of the Federation of Local Authorities, said he supported Gallant’s call to freeze the legislation and enter negotiations, saying the most important thing at this time was “preserving the unity of the nation of Israel and the security of the state.”

Other Likud members railed against Gallant, with Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi accusing him of “surrendering under left-wing pressure.”

“The State of Israel is at a historic crossroads between democracy and dictatorship, and its defense minister chose dictatorship [of the justice system],” Karhi wrote on Twitter.

Echoing Karhi, Likud MK Tally Gotliv charged Gallant was displaying “weakness and subservience.”

Coalition whip Ofir Katz of Likud said whoever doesn’t vote in favor of the judicial overhaul, “has ended his career in the Likud.”

Speaking on a Channel 14 talk show, Katz said Gallant had made a mistake in calling for a pause.

“He is wrong, big time. Who do you think you have to talk to? Do you think there is another side waiting for you?” Katz said.

Likud MK Ofir Katz leads a House Committee meeting at the Knesset on February 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some of Netanyahu’s far-right allies also tore into Gallant, with National Security Minister Ben Gvir urging Netanyahu to fire him.

“I call on the prime minister to fire Gallant, who came in with the votes of the right, but surrendered to the pressure of those who threatened to refuse [to serve in the military], and tries to put a stop to the important reform,” Ben Gvir said in a statement.

The speech won plaudits from opposition figures, though organizers of regular nationwide protests — which drew hundreds of thousands on Saturday night — said they would continue until the plan is abandoned.

“Defense Minister Gallant is taking a brave and vital step tonight for the security of the State of Israel. The coup seriously harms national security and it is his role and responsibility to stop the dangerous deterioration,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said in a statement.

“This is the moment of truth. I call on the government: Stop everything, do not pass the change in the committee for the appointment of judges and the Deri law this week, and come and hold talks at the president’s residence,” he added.

Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on March 20, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The coalition has been advancing a bill tailored to return Shas leader Aryeh Deri to the cabinet, after the High Court of Justice earlier this year found his twin appointments as health and interior minister “unreasonable in the extreme” due to past convictions, including one last year.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, said Gallant had spoken “true words that should be a wake-up call for any home in Israel,” urging him and other Likud MKs to announce that they will vote against the coming week’s bills.

Speaking on Channel 12, Gantz said the country was “in danger” and was being “torn to pieces” by the overhaul.

Gantz said he was “promising that the moment the legislation is stopped, we will arrive for dialogue out of an intention to reach national agreements.”

National Unity MK Gadi Eisenkot, also a former military chief, prodded more members of the coalition to break ranks and pressure Netanyahu to halt the legislation, while party MKs Gideon Sa’ar, the former justice minister, praised Gallant and the Likud MKs who have already publicly supported a legislative halt.

This aerial view shows people protesting in Tel Aviv against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul bill, on March 25, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman, like Eisenkot, also encouraged Likud MKs to break ranks and “end this craziness.”

The leaders of the anti-government protest movement voiced concern that Gallant’s decision was a ruse designed to induce the protest movement into scaling down.

“We are not stupid, we didn’t enter into this for a temporary deception and we won’t lower our guard. We demand the legislation be completely shelved. Until then, the battle will only intensify,” they said.

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. The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is convening on Sunday morning to continue the process of preparing and approving the bill for its second and third (final) Knesset readings.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a vote in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

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.

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