Israeli President Isaac Herzog has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ruling coalition to halt their divisive plan to change the judiciary “for the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of accountability.”
The call by the head of state, who does not normally get involved in politics, on Monday underscores the concern the proposals have sparked and follows a dramatic night of protests across Israel.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in cities across Israel in a spontaneous outburst of anger after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly fired his defense minister for questioning his judicial review plan.
Protesters in Tel Aviv, many carrying blue-and-white Israeli flags, blocked a main road and lit large bonfires late Sunday, while police tussled with protesters gathered outside Netanyahu’s private home in Jerusalem.
The unrest deepened a months-long crisis surrounding Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary that has sparked mass protests, alarmed business leaders and former security chiefs, and raised concerns among the United States and other close allies.
Netanyahu’s sacking of Defense Secretary Yoav Gallant signaled that the prime minister and his allies will move forward with the overhaul plan this week. Gallant was the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to oppose it, saying the deep divisions threatened to weaken the military.
But as droves of late-night protesters flooded the streets, Likud ministers began signaling their readiness to hit the brakes. Culture Minister Micky Zohar, a Netanyahu confidant, said the party will support him if he decides to suspend the judiciary review.
Israeli media said the leaders of Netanyahu’s coalition would meet on Monday morning. Later in the day, the grassroots protest movement announced it would hold another mass demonstration in front of the Knesset, or Parliament, in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu made the decision to sack Gallant after the former naval admiral warned on Saturday that the overhaul plans risked “a clear, imminent and tangible threat to the security of the state” and called for them to be halted.
“At this point, I am willing to take any risk and pay any price for the good of our country,” Gallant said in his televised address.
In announcing Gallant’s sacking, Netanyahu’s office did not name a successor or provide any further details. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided tonight to sack Defense Minister Yoav Gallant,” it said.
Shortly thereafter, Gallant, 64, wrote on Twitter: “The security of the State of Israel has been and always will be my life’s work.”
As protesters poured into the streets, police used water cannon to push them back from Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, while in Tel Aviv – where hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets since the beginning of the year – protesters ignited a large bonfire on a main highway .
Clashes were reported in Tel Aviv as police moved in to clear the highway and put out the fires.
Opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz issued a joint statement condemning Netanyahu’s moves.
“State security must not be a card in the political game. Netanyahu crossed a red line tonight,” they said, urging the Likud party not to engage in “national security crushing.”
The leader of the Histadrut trade union federation, the umbrella organization for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, stepped up the pressure, saying he was “astonished” by Gallant’s ouster and promised a “dramatic” announcement on Monday.
Israel’s Consul General in New York said he was resigning over the dismissal. Israel’s research universities announced that they would no longer hold courses under the proposed law and called for its immediate freeze.
The White House also expressed “deep concern” and called on the Israeli leadership to find a compromise as soon as possible.
“Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes towards a democratic system should be pursued with the widest possible popular support,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
The turbulence comes at a critical juncture in the passage of the law, with a bill giving the executive branch more control over the appointment of judges expected to be tabled for ratification this week in the Knesset, where Netanyahu and his allies control 64 of 120 seats .
Netanyahu and his allies say the plan – which also aims to give Parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions – will restore balance between the judiciary and executive branches and rein in what they describe as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies regard.
But critics say the laws will eliminate Israel’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the ruling coalition. They also say Netanyahu, who is on trial over corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.
“What the government wants to do is not fix or fix or change the justice system to make it fairer. Exactly the opposite. They want to take control of the judicial system,” said Ofer Cassif, an Israeli politician and Knesset member of the leftist Hadash Party.
“I think we should not call the situation a judicial review but a regime coup d’état,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Netanyahu wants to turn Israel away from an ethnocracy – because I don’t think Israel was ever a democracy, because this state is based on Jewish supremacy, so it cannot be considered a democracy a priori – but it will go under in the coup that the government is seeking wants, Israel will turn into a full-fledged fascist dictatorship.”
The wave of protests sparked by Gallant’s ouster and deepening divisions within the coalition now call into question how, or even if, the as-yet-unscheduled vote will go ahead.
The rapid legal and political developments have catapulted Israel into uncharted territory, said Guy Lurie, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
“We are at the beginning of a constitutional crisis in the sense that there are disagreements about the source of authority and legitimacy of various governing bodies,” he told the Associated Press news agency.