Israeli defence minister calls for halt to judicial overhaul

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Saturday called on the government to halt legislation on changes to the judiciary, saying the bitter dispute over the measures poses a danger to national security.

“The deepening split is seeping into the military and security agencies – this is a clear, immediate and real danger to Israel’s security. I will not facilitate this,” Gallant said in a brief televised statement.

Though others in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right governing coalition have voiced some misgivings about the contentious judicial shake-up, Gallant’s was the first clear, public objection by a senior cabinet member.

“Legislation at this time must be stopped,” Gallant said.

At least two fellow Likud party lawmakers, Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan, came out in support of Gallant and echoed his call for justice reforms to indeed be made, but with broad agreement.

It was unclear whether Netanyahu, wrapping up a visit to London and aiming to finalise legislation on at least one bill in the coming week, would heed their call.

Netanyahu – on trial for corruption which he denies – is under pressure from others in his cabinet who want him to proceed this week with a bill that would grant the ruling coalition more sway in selecting judges, which critics say would undermine judicial independence.

Highlighting tensions in Netanyahu’s cabinet, far-right police minister Itamar Ben-Gvir urged the premier to fire Gallant, who he said had caved to opposition pressure.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid praised Gallant’s “brave step” and said he was ready for talks on the reforms once the government stops the legislation.  

But with a solid 64-seat majority in parliament, the coalition would still have enough votes without Gallant, unless more lawmakers back down from the proposed changes.

The judicial overhaul plan, announced on Jan. 4, has plunged Israel into its worst political crisis in years, as mass protests have swept the country.

It has also stirred concern abroad and warnings about a serious economic backlash.

Gallant has previously voiced worries about a wave of Israelis who have pledged not to heed call-ups for military reserve duty if the reforms proceed, saying that could weaken war-readiness and national cohesion.

Despite Netanyahu’s pledge this week to enshrine civil rights in law and defer some chapters of the overhaul during parliament’s April recess, opposition does not seem to have weakened.

Israeli media said around 200,000 Israelis rallied against the plan in Tel Aviv on Saturday, with tens of thousands more across the country. “We are here fighting for our democracy,” said protester Hila Bron, 41.

(This story has been refiled to correctt a spelling in paragraph 11)

(Additional reporting by Rami Amichay in Tel Aviv; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Giles Elgood and Marguerita Choy)