Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on Thursday night that he would press ahead with a key part of a bitterly contested judicial overhaul as splits over the plan began to emerge in his hardline coalition.
The fight over the proposals, which would significantly weaken the powers of the judiciary, has sparked the biggest wave of demonstrations in Israel for more than a decade. Tens of thousands took part in the latest round of protests on Thursday, which have swelled to draw in participants from the tech sector and reservists from key units in Israel’s military.
In a prime-time speech announced amid reports that defence minister Yoav Gallant was about to break ranks and call for a halt to the overhaul, Netanyahu said that plans to give the government and its allies control over the appointment of judges — one of the most controversial of the proposed changes — would be passed by parliament next week.
Supporters of the overhaul, which includes limiting the top court’s power to strike down laws, say it is needed to rein in an overly activist judiciary that has pushed a partisan leftwing agenda. But critics see them as a lethal threat to Israel’s checks and balances that will undermine minority protections, foster corruption and damage the economy.
Netanyahu’s speech, during which he also insisted that he was aware of the fears of his opponents and would legislate to safeguard civil rights, capped a turbulent day during which simmering tensions within his coalition of rightwing, ultrareligious and ultranationalist groups — widely regarded as the most rightwing in Israeli history — spilled into public view.
After Israeli media reports that Gallant was planning to give a public statement on the overhaul, hardline members of the ruling coalition reacted furiously. The extreme right Jewish Power party headed by ultranationalist national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir accused Gallant of having “removed himself from the rightwing camp”.
“Today it turns out that [Gallant] stands by those who would stop the government’s activities and prevent the rightwing from implementing its policies,” the party said in a statement.
The criticism was echoed by other hawkish members of the coalition. Communications minister Shlomo Karhi said that dropping the overhaul would be “shameful” and lead to the “dissolution of the government”. Public diplomacy minister Galit Distel Atbaryan said that any member of Netanyahu’s Likud party opposed to the plans should resign immediately.
“Better today. Preferably right this minute,” she wrote on Twitter. “None of the Likud representatives have any right to enjoy the mandate that got them into [parliament] and then kick the voters.”
However, other members of the coalition took a less combative stance, with two ultrareligious factions saying that they would support whatever decision Netanyahu took on how to proceed with the overhaul.
Amid the outpouring of criticism, Netanyahu summoned Gallant for a meeting, after which the defence minister said he was postponing his statement at the prime minister’s request. He added that he had briefed Netanyahu on the impact of the judicial overhaul on the military.
In recent weeks, thousands of reservists from units across the military, including elite air force, cyber and military intelligence units, have threatened to stop reporting for training if the overhaul becomes law.
Israel’s Channel 12 news reported on Thursday that the head of Israel’s internal security service had warned Netanyahu that the combination of the divisions sparked by the overhaul and mounting security threats were taking Israel to a “dangerous place”.