Amid mass protests, calls grow from inside coalition to reconsider judicial overhaul

As mass protesters broke out across Israel Sunday night, calls from within the coalition grew to consider a stop to the relentless legislative effort by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to upend the judiciary.

In a move that sent shockwaves through the country, Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, on Sunday night, a day after he called in a primetime TV address to stop the government’s push to overhaul the judiciary and work toward a compromise. The news prompted hundreds of thousands of protesters to pour into the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, and elsewhere late Sunday, with demonstrators vowing to stay in the roads into the night.

In Tel Aviv, protesters lit bonfires on the Ayalon Highway and blocked the main throughway in both directions while chanting for “democracy.”

As the protests swelled, a number of Likud MKs and coalition partners called to consider freezing the legislative push while others urged Netanyahu to double down and move ahead swiftly with legislation that will bring judicial appointments, including to the Supreme Court presidency, under political control.

MK Miki Zohar, the Likud’s culture and sports minister, called the current situation untenable and said “if Netanyahu decides to stop the legislation, he should be backed… That’s the imperative of the hour.” While the legislation should be paused now “to allow things to calm down,” Zohar said, nonetheless, “we have to complete this reform — with intelligence… and better explanation.”

Half the country elected the coalition to carry out the reform, Zohar said, but not now — “not with the streets on fire. You don’t burn down the home on its residents.”

Israelis block the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul on March 26, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Zohad said he favored discussions with the opposition on the reform, but “if we can’t reach agreements we have to complete the reform that we were elected to carry out.”

Economy Minister Nir Barkat, also Likud, issued a statement that appeared to assume Netanyahu will halt the judicial overhaul legislation and offered support.

“The State of Israel takes precedence over everything,” Barkat said. “The people of Israel take precedence over everything. I will back the prime minister in a decision to stop and plot a new course.”

“The reform is necessary and we will carry it out — but not at the price of civil war,” said Barkat.

Netanyahu was said to be at the Prime Minister’s Office early Monday conducting hours of “security and legal discussions” amid reports he was considering a move to pause the overhaul push.

Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu was considering doing so even as Justice Minister Yariv Levin has been threatening to resign. The report said most members of the coalition favor halting the legislation, in light of the nationwide protests.

Culture and Sport Miki Zohar at the ministry offices in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset’s Constitution Committee late Sunday finalized core legislation that will give the coalition near-complete control of choosing Israel’s judges. Committee chairman Simcha Rothman announced that discussion in the committee will resume at 8:00 a.m. Monday with the bill scheduled to be presented for its final readings in the Knesset plenum Monday night.

Meanwhile, a separate Knesset committee finalized legislation, ahead of its final Knesset readings, that would bar the High Court from preventing ministerial appointments, enabling Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to the cabinet.

Coalition party heads are set to meet at 9:00 a.m. Monday at the Prime Minister’s Office to discuss developments.

On Sunday night, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party joined United Torah Judaism in a statement offering to continue to “support the prime minister and his decisions,” a remark seen as a a nod toward Netanyahu to set the path forward on the judicial overhaul with their backing.

In a separate statement, the far-right Otzma Yehudit party said it was fully behind Netanyahu and Levin, and urged them to ignore calls for the judicial overhaul drive to be stopped. “The right has no mandate to torpedo the judicial reform and instigate violence,” the statement said.

Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir had loudly lobbied for Netanyahu to fire Gallant, sparking Sunday night’s unprecedented protests.

Joining other coalition members urging the government to halt its judicial overhaul push, Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli (Likud) called for a rethink in how the legislative package is sold to the public.

“You have to admit, honestly, we lost direction,” he said in a lengthy statement.

MK Amichai Chikli at a Knesset House Committee meeting on the Yamina party’s request to declare him a ‘defector,’ on April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Chikli proposed that the government consider a proposal by opposition figure Benny Gantz, head of the National Unity party, “which seems to come from a pure and well-intentioned place, sketch out a new roadmap for resuming the legislative process, present it to the public and set the rules of the game ahead of time,” he added.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, a leading rabbi in the religious nationalist movement and a spiritual mentor to the far-right Religious Zionism party, headed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, signed a letter along with other prominent rabbis from the community urging a ceasefire in the fight over the judicial shakeup.

Noting the damage already caused to the nation by the dramatic overhaul, the rabbis called on the government to halt legislative activity on the overhaul until after Independence Day next month, urging the opposition to curtail protests until then as well.

Ayelet Shaked, a former justice minister and senior right-wing figure who has championed judicial reforms, called on Netanyahu to stop the legislative push.

“Even justified reform does not justify a dismantling of Israeli society, security and economy. The top responsibility is to prevent the destruction of the house. Stop now!” tweeted Shaked, formerly of the now-defunct Yamina faction.

Earlier in the night, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein — a Likud stalwart who has shown rare, if halting, opposition to Netanyahu — also called to halt the legislative process to upend the judiciary and indicated that his recent absence from key votes tied to the coalition’s sweeping plan to shift power from the judiciary to politicians was no accident.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein leads a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on February 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid had earlier assailed Netanyahu for firing Gallant, calling the move “a new low for an anti-Zionist government that is harming national security and ignoring the warnings of all security figures.”

“The Israeli prime minister is a danger to the State of Israel,” he said.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, also a former defense minister, called Netanyahu’s axing of Gallant “dictatorship at its best.”

“The defense minister dared to express the deep concern of all the heads of the security branches over the disintegration of the IDF and fatal harm to Israel’s security,” Liberman wrote on Twitter.

“Instead of listening to [Gallant] and convening the cabinet, Netanyahu chose the path of all dictators — silencing voices,” he said.

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