Mar 26, 2023
Netanyahu’s Court Plan Is on Track Despite Defense Chief Dissent
(Bloomberg) -- A contentious plan to reduce the power of Israel’s Supreme Court appeared on track for passage this week despite a dramatic speech Saturday night by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant calling for a freeze to the overhaul in the name of national security.
The legislation, which has prompted demonstrations by opponents and divided Israeli society, is split up into a series of bills. Two key members of Prime Minister Benjamin 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 this week.
That vote 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.
Many of Israel’s allies, including the US, UK, Germany and France, have expressed similar concerns, saying that a fully independent and strong judiciary is vital to a functioning democracy. Israeli markets and its currency have been shaken by the controversy.
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 as defense minister, according to Israeli media reports.
Netanyahu was in London when Gallant spoke and hasn’t commented publicly on his cabinet minister’s defiant stance.
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.
Netanyahu has formed 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 favored steps, including easy expansion of West Bank settlements, detention of migrants seeking refuge and excusing ultra-Orthodox men from military service to pursue religious studies.
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.”
Another aspect that has alarmed Gallant is a small but 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.
--With assistance from Gwen Ackerman.
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