(Bloomberg) -- Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Israel overnight, including around Benjamin Netanyahu’s home, after the prime minister fired his defense chief over a dramatic speech criticizing a contentious plan to reduce the power of the Supreme Court.
The shekel weakened at the Monday opening and President Isaac Herzog called on Netanyahu to halt the legislation “for the sake of the unity of the people of Israel.”
Overnight, police scuffled with protesters outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence while others gathered near the defense ministry in Tel Aviv in support of ousted Minister Yoav Gallant and against Netanyahu. They spilled out into the road waving Israeli flags and blocking traffic, making a main highway impassible for hours.
The developments followed a statement from the prime minister’s office late Sunday saying Netanyahu had dismissed Gallant less than a day after the defense chief defied the premier by taking to the airwaves and calling for a long pause to the controversial legislation.
Netanyahu’s proposal has sharply divided Israeli society, battered markets and left the country increasingly isolated diplomatically. Long-time allies, including the US, UK, Germany and France, have argued that a fully independent and strong judiciary is vital to a functioning democracy.
The proposed legislation is split up into a series of bills. Two key members of Netanyahu’s Likud party said that while a pause might be preferable, they plan to support the latest bill when it comes up for a vote that’s expected to pass this week.
The law will give politicians a dominant role in selecting judges, including high-court justices, a change from the current system where sitting justices and members of the legal profession hold sway.
The bill’s proponents say that in nearly every democracy, winners of elections get to select judges, and they are bringing Israel in line with that practice. Its opponents — and they include hundreds of thousands of weekly street demonstrators as well as business, professional and military leaders — say it will concentrate too much power in the hands of the ruling party, damaging democracy.
Netanyahu, who took office again in late 2022, leads the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history. His coalition partners have long complained that the Supreme Court stands in the way of their preferred policies, including easy expansion of West Bank settlements, detention of migrants seeking refuge and excusing ultra-Orthodox men from military service to pursue religious studies.
But protesters have rejected those arguments and seen their concerns echoed by key allies overseas.
The Biden administration on Sunday reiterated its call for a compromise to be reached.
“As the President recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible. We believe that is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens.”
Highlighting the complicated internal politics in Israel, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter was reported at first to support Gallant in calling for a delay. But he issued a statement on Sunday saying, “I am still in favor. The judicial reform is necessary and it will be carried out.”
A former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, Dichter could be asked by Netanyahu to replace Gallant, according to Israeli media reports.
Netanyahu, 73, was in London when Gallant took his defiant stance. On Thursday, Gallant was about to make a speech when Netanyahu called him to his office and persuaded him not to. Then Netanyahu gave a speech saying he was moving ahead with key portions of the bill but promised to protect individual and minority rights.
Another Likud lawmaker, Eli Dallal, who previously urged a freeze, also said on Sunday that he’d vote with his party to move the legislation forward, according to Channel 12 news.
Two Likud members, Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan, tweeted their support for Gallant on Saturday night. More parliamentarians will have to side with them to prevent the legislation from passing as planned.
A senior security official laid out on Sunday why Gallant felt the need to speak. An unraveling of Israeli unity is a true security risk, the official said, citing an increase in threats from Iran, radical Palestinian groups and Lebanon as well as a decrease in the US’s deterrent role in the region.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Israeli intelligence can hear its enemies crow about the internal rift.
“We are listening to them talk about it,” the official said. “We need to make sure our standing and deterrence are not harmed.”
Gallant issued a tweet overnight that Israel’s security “has always been and will always remain” his priority.
Another aspect that has alarmed Gallant is a growing movement among reservists to refuse duty call-ups as a means of protest. In his speech, he asked not only for the legislation to stop but for the protests and acts of refusal to end.
Yair Lapid, head of the opposition, condemned the firing of Gallant in the harshest terms, saying it was “a new low” from a government “that is undermining national security and ignoring the warnings of security officials.”
--With assistance from Gwen Ackerman.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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