For a few hours on Thursday, Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial drive to overhaul Israel’s judiciary looked like it would start to unravel, at the end of a chaotic week that laid bare the tensions in his far-right coalition.
Yoav Gallant, the defence minister and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, had let it be known he would make a public statement, and was widely expected to become the first minister to call for a halt to an overhaul that has plunged Israel into its biggest political crisis for years.
But Gallant’s statement never came. After being summoned by Netanyahu and attacked by hardliners in the far-right governing coalition, he said he would “postpone” it. Netanyahu instead gave an address in which he pledged to push ahead next week with one of the most controversial parts of the overhaul, which critics fear will destroy Israel’s checks and balances.
Even though Gallant never spoke out, the episode underscored the simmering divisions inside Netanyahu’s coalition and the consternation in Israel’s military establishment over the impact of the overhaul.
The proposals have sparked Israel’s biggest wave of demonstrations for a decade, as the fight over the judiciary has morphed into a battle over the nature of Israel itself, drawing in protesters from multiple sections of society, including thousands of reservists from Israel’s military.
Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu adviser turned political analyst, said the crisis was one of the biggest challenges the prime minister had faced, adding that the size of the reservists’ protests was unprecedented. “This is the first time there has been [a protest] with so many officials and so many units. And it’s expanding.”
In the past week alone, more than 300 air force reservists, and in excess of 600 military intelligence reservists, said they would boycott training in protest against the judicial overhaul. Their actions follow similar threats from across the military, including members of an elite fighter jet squadron and the famed 8200 cyber unit.
As he postponed his statement, Gallant said pointedly that he had warned Netanyahu of the security implications of the overhaul, which would give the government greater control of the appointment of judges and limit the top court’s ability to strike down laws.
For others in the coalition, however, the bigger concern was the prospect of Gallant voicing his misgivings. In the hours after it emerged he was planning a statement, the defence minister was assailed by hardliners in the coalition that unites Likud with ultranationalist and ultrareligious parties.
Itamar Ben-Gvir’s extreme-right Jewish Power party accused Gallant of standing by “those who would stop the government’s activities”, while public diplomacy minister Galit Distel Atbaryan said any Likud member opposed to the changes should resign. “Preferably right this minute,” she wrote on Twitter.
The public recriminations capped a tumultuous week in which Netanyahu repeatedly had to distance his government from inflammatory statements and policies proposed by coalition hardliners that sparked outrage among Israel’s neighbours and in the US.
On Monday, the government was forced to clarify that it still respected its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, after the ultranationalist finance minister Bezalel Smotrich gave an inflammatory speech in which he claimed that there was “no such thing as Palestinians” from a podium decorated with a map of Israel that included Jordan and the occupied West Bank.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu said Israel would not reestablish four dismantled settlements in the occupied West Bank, despite the repeal of a ban on settlers returning, after the US summoned the Israeli ambassador over the legislation. The same day Netanyahu had to clarify that his government would not pass any law against Christians, after his ultraorthodox coalition partners proposed legislation that would punish attempts to persuade people to change religion with imprisonment.
The backpedalling underscored the tensions between the radical ambitions of Netanyahu’s far-right partners, and his attempts to improve regional relations, which have already been complicated by surging violence in the West Bank.
The United Arab Emirates this week dispatched Khaldoon al-Mubarak, one of Abu Dhabi’s top officials, to Israel to warn Netanyahu about the need to de-escalate tensions with the Palestinians.
Mubarak told the Israeli leader that the upsurge in violence puts at “risk all that has been accomplished” by the Abraham accords, a person familiar with the conversation said, referring to the 2020 deal that led the UAE and three other Arab states to normalise relations with Israel.
Despite the turmoil, Bushinsky said the nixing of Gallant’s planned speech suggested Netanyahu still controlled his party, while also buying time for the Israeli leader to weigh up his next move. “He always likes to have all the balls in the air and make decisions at the last minute.”
Others argue that by insisting he would press ahead with the overhaul, Netanyahu had set the stage for a constitutional showdown with Israel’s top court, which is likely to be asked to rule on the legality of the changes. Yariv Levin, the justice minister, has already said the government “certainly won’t accept” a situation where the high court strikes down the changes.
Some government critics have warned that any such refusal to accept a court ruling would be the moment Israel slid into a full-blown constitutional crisis. Others believe it has already arrived.
“The uncertainty, the fact that the government can pass legislation and then if it goes to the court we don’t know if the government will abide by the court’s decision,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political analyst. “That in itself is already a constitutional crisis.”
Additional reporting by Andrew England in London