Israel’s defence minister has broken ranks with his government by calling on prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt a controversial judicial overhaul, warning that the bitter divisions it has caused pose a “immediate danger” to the country’s security.
Speaking as massive demonstrations against the plan took place for the 12th straight weekend, Yoav Gallant said he was worried about the impact of the polarisation on Israel’s military, where thousands of reservists have refused to take part in training in protest against the overhaul.
“I see the source of our strength eroding . . . The growing rift in our society is penetrating the army and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state,” he said.
“At this time, the process must be stopped, so that we may sit and talk.”
The fight over the changes pushed by Netanyahu’s far-right coalition — which would give the government control over the appointment of judges and severely limit the top court’s ability to strike down laws — has plunged Israel into its deepest political crisis for years.
Government officials say the changes are needed to rein in an activist judiciary that has pushed a partisan leftwing agenda. But critics see them as a fundamental threat to Israel’s checks and balances that will eviscerate minority protections, foster corruption and damage the economy.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have joined protests against the plans, with demonstrations on Saturday night taking place in more than 100 locations across the country.
In his brief statement, Gallant — the most senior government figure to speak out against the overhaul — said he believed the judiciary needed reforming. But he added that “significant, national changes are achieved through dialogue”, and urged the government to halt the process until after Israeli holidays next month to allow for talks.
In a sign of the tensions within the coalition over the plans, Gallant’s intervention immediately won the backing of Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan, two other MPs from Netanyahu’s Likud party who have previously expressed reservations about the overhaul.
But hardliners reacted with fury. Communications minister Shlomo Karhi accused Gallant of “giving wind to a military coup”, while Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s ultranationalist national security minister, demanded Gallant be sacked.
“[Gallant] came in with the votes of the right, but surrendered to pressure from those who threatened to refuse [to turn up for military duty],” Ben-Gvir said in a statement.
Gallant had planned to make a statement about the overhaul on Thursday night. But after being summoned by Netanyahu amid attacks from coalition hardliners, he postponed his speech at the last minute.
Instead, Netanyahu gave an address in which he said the government would push through the amendment giving it control over the appointment of judges — one of the most controversial elements of the overhaul — next week.