(JTA) — Israel’s defense minister called for a pause on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the country’s court system, dealing a potentially debilitating blow to proposals that have brought hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters into the streets and have drawn international criticism, including from President Joe Biden and other world leaders.
Yoav Gallant, in a dramatic, 6-minute televised address Saturday night as protesters once again filled streets throughout Israel, called for a suspension of the judicial legislation, whose first major component was due to go to a final vote next week that would pass it into law. Gallant spoke at a bare podium framed by two Israeli flags and wore an Israeli flag pin on his lapel.
“For the sake of Israel’s security, for the sake of our daughters and sons, we must stop the legislative process now to allow the people of Israel to celebrate the holidays of Passover and Independence Day together, and to mourn together on Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day,” said Gallant, referencing Jewish and Israeli holidays that will take place over the course of the next month. “These are sacred days for us.”
Gallant is the most prominent ally of Netanyahu to come out against the judicial overhaul. He said that his call for a pause was spurred by the internal conflict the proposal is causing in the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, where Gallant served as a senior general. IDF reservists have issued mounting threats that they will not report for duty if the overhaul passes, and some have already begun to absent themselves in protest.
Gallant called for broad-based negotiations over the proposal after the holidays are over, and said changes did need to be made to the judicial system. Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has likewise called for dialogue and has put forward a compromise proposal.
“The growing rift in society is penetrating the IDF and the security forces,” said Gallant, who called himself a right-winger and dedicated member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. “This is a clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the country. That I cannot support.”
Two coalition lawmakers immediately voiced support for Gallant, and a third is reported to back him. Those defections — four members of Netanyahu’s 64-seat coalition, would deprive the measures of the support they need to pass in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.
Gallant also called for the protests to end, and stressed the need for an end to threats of defection from the IDF.
“We must stop the protests and reach a hand out for dialogue,” he said. “We must stop immediately any display of refusal [to serve], which erodes the strength of the IDF and harms the defense establishment. For our security and unity we must return to the arena of dialogue and remember that we are brothers.”
The law Netanyahu hoped to pass this coming week would increase the governing coalition’s control over Supreme Court appointments. Another separate piece of legislation would effectively remove the Supreme Court’s power to review laws.
The courts have been a bulwark protecting vulnerable populations in Israel, including Arabs, women, LGBTQ people and non-Orthodox Jews. Netanyahu, in explaining frustrations that led him to embrace the changes, has mentioned how the court stopped him in 2018 from carrying out planned mass deportations of tens of thousands of African refugees.
Supporters of the overhaul say it will allow the Knesset to more effectively represent the country’s right-wing majority. Critics of the changes say that the bills, should they become law, would concentrate much of the government’s power in the hands of a single entity: the coalition.
The appeal from Gallant, a decorated soldier who rose to the rank of southern commander, may be hard for Netanyahu to ignore. The prime minister reportedly had persuaded Gallant to nix a similar speech on Thursday. Instead, Netanyahu spoke that evening, and pledged to press ahead with the overhaul.
It’s not clear what the immediate trigger was for Gallant to change his mind and deliver the speech anyway. Reporters were given just a few minutes notice of his speech, and it came close to 9 p.m.
As soon as he was done, two other members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party joined Gallant in his appeal: Yuli Edelstein, a former Knesset speaker and Soviet Jewish refusenik, and David Bitan, Netanyahu’s most outspoken critic within the party. Likud lawmaker Avi Dichter, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, is also reported to back the pause.
Gallant is also the rare figure in Netanyahu’s government who has a close relationship with the Biden administration, which has kept Netanyahu at a distance since his election in November. He has played a critical role in working with his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in mounting joint exercises seen as a deterrent to Iran — a country whose threats Gallant cited in his speech, along with other security challenges Israel faces.ֿ
Gallant ended his speech with a well-known quote from Psalms, quoted throughout Jewish liturgy: “God grant strength to his nation, God bless his nation with peace.”