Israel’s Defense Minister Says Government Should Halt Contentious Judicial Plan

JERUSALEM — The Israeli defense minister, Yoav Gallant, called on Saturday night for his government to suspend its contentious plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary, arguing that the turmoil it has unleashed within Israeli society and the military has become a threat to Israel’s national security.

“The rift within our society is widening and penetrating the Israel Defense Forces,” Mr. Gallant said in a televised speech. He added: “This is a clear and immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state. I shall not be a party to this.”

Mr. Gallant’s announcement set the stage for what is expected to be one of the most dramatic weeks in Israeli history. The far-right governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has a majority of just four seats, is expected to hold a final vote in Parliament early next week on the first step in its overhaul plan: a bill that would give the government greater control over appointments to the Supreme Court.

The government’s proposal has led to weeks of mass protests, which continued on Saturday night; warnings of political violence and civil war; and unrest within the military, particularly among reservists. Thousands of reserve soldiers have said they would not report for volunteer duty if the overhaul goes ahead, or have already withdrawn from service.

Mr. Gallant is the first minister to break ranks and call for a freeze to the legislation. His intervention raised questions about whether enough like-minded governing lawmakers would now follow suit and prevent the law’s passage through Parliament. Two other governing lawmakers, David Bitan and Yuli Edelstein, swiftly tweeted their support for Mr. Gallant, and a handful of others were also thought to be wavering.

Mr. Gallant and his backers, however, did not explicitly say they would vote against the law in Parliament this week.

Most governing lawmakers are nevertheless firmly behind the proposal, which they say would bolster democracy by giving the elected government primacy over unelected judges. But critics fear the measure would blunt one of Israel’s few checks on government overreach, potentially paving the way for authoritarian rule.

The standoff has become emblematic of much wider and older social rifts related to the role of religion in public life, the primacy of the settler movement, and tensions between Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent. Religious Jews and those with roots in the Middle East feel underrepresented in state institutions like the Supreme Court, which has historically been dominated by judges from secular and European backgrounds.

Mr. Gallant said he was broadly supportive of reforming the judiciary but felt that the current proposals had proved too divisive and should be paused to allow for dialogue over the next month of religious and national holidays.

“For the sake of Israel’s security, for our daughters and sons, we must stop now the legislative process at this time — and allow the Israeli nation to celebrate Passover and Independence Day,” Mr. Gallant said.

Mr. Gallant’s intervention came after warnings by the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, that the number of reservists reporting for duty this month had fallen to a point that the military was on the verge of reducing the scope of certain operations.

The military high command is also concerned about the possibility of resignations from full-time soldiers.

The military has declined to make public a full accounting of the drop in reservists reporting for duty this month. But it confirmed that 200 reserve pilots — a significant proportion of the Israeli Air Force’s pilots, though not a majority — signed a letter on Friday saying that, in protest at the judicial proposal, they would not report for duty for two weeks.

Unlike in many other militaries, reservists are considered an important part of the Israel Defense Forces’ operational capacity — particularly in the Air Force and intelligence units. Reserve pilots often participate in strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria, and officials say that any potential Israeli strike on Iran itself would require widespread participation from reservists.

Mr. Gallant warned Mr. Netanyahu of these concerns on Thursday, and was on the verge of speaking out that night before the prime minister persuaded him to delay his intervention.

A former naval commando, Mr. Gallant had faced weeks of growing pressure from former military colleagues to break ranks. Crowds of former naval commandos have gathered outside his home in recent days to persuade him to oppose the overhaul. Reserve pilots also texted his personal phone every time one of them skipped reserve duty.

Mr. Netanyahu did not immediately respond to Mr. Gallant’s speech on Saturday night, and his office did not respond to requests for comment. The prime minister spent the weekend in London with his wife, Sara, after meeting the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, on Friday morning.

As recently as Thursday night, he had vowed to press ahead with a final vote on the first step of the judicial overhaul.

There were signs, however, that Mr. Gallant’s call for a halt was gaining momentum among other moderate members of Likud, the right-wing party to which he and the prime minister belong. The Israeli news media reported that Avi Dichter, the agriculture minister and a former head of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, had privately backed Mr. Gallant’s proposal.

And Haim Bibas, the Likud mayor of the city of Modiin and the head of an influential umbrella organization for all municipal authorities, issued a statement in support of Mr. Gallant’s call to freeze legislation.

But there was also furious criticism of Mr. Gallant from more hard-line figures in Likud and its governing coalition. Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition includes nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties to the right of Likud, which provide him with a majority in Parliament.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister and a member of the far-right Jewish Power, called for Mr. Gallant to resign, while Shlomo Karhi, the communications minister and a Likud member, said Mr. Gallant had “surrendered” to leftist pressure.

“The State of Israel is at a historical crossroads between democracy and dictatorship and its defense minister chooses dictatorship,” Mr. Karhi said on social media, referring to the government argument that the judiciary is currently too powerful.

Opposition leaders praised Mr. Gallant for speaking out, and called for Mr. Netanyahu to freeze the legislation and enter formal negotiations with the opposition under mediation by the president, Isaac Herzog.

“Gallant is taking a brave and vital step tonight for the security of the State of Israel,” said Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition. “This is the moment of truth. I call on the government: Stop everything.”

“Come and hold talks at the president’s residence,” Mr. Lapid added.

But it was unclear whether a freeze and a compromise would satisfy the grass-roots movements protesting the overhaul. Roughly 300,000 Israelis demonstrated across the country on Saturday night, according to estimates in the Israeli news media — about 3 percent of the total population of roughly 9 million. Many were attending for the 12th weekend in succession.

In a statement, an umbrella group that coordinates between protest leaders in different cities said it would only stop demonstrating if the overhaul was scrapped entirely.

Carol Sutherland contributed reporting from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.

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