Sheldon Kirshner

The Constitutional Crisis In Israel Intensifies

Israel’s constitutional crisis intensified on March 26 after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who had called for a halt to his government’s draconian plan to overhaul the judiciary.

He was the first minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet to propose such a plan, and he paid a heavy price for his forthright opinion.

Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member of the extremist Jewish Power Party, had urged Gallant to resign. His colleague, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, claimed that Gallant had “surrendered” to left-wing pressure.

Gideon Saar, the former justice minister and Netanyahu’s onetime ally, denounced the sacking as “an act of madness.” As he put it, “There is no precedent in Israel’s history for a security minister being fired because he warned, as required by his position, of a security danger. Netanyahu is determined to drive Israel into the abyss.”

By firing Gallant, Netanyahu sent an unambiguous signal to his opponents that his coalition government, which holds a majority of 64 seats in the Knesset, may well press ahead with the first part of its legislative program. In fact, Netanyahu tacitly followed Gallant’s recommendation and, on March 27, delayed consideration of the legislation until next month.

Netanyahu’s agenda, which empowers the most radical and ethnocentric elements in Israeli society, has touched off mass protests around the country and thrown Israel into its most serious internal crisis since statehood 75 years ago.

Although Gallant was generally in favor of the legislation, he thought it was too divisive and should be postponed to encourage dialogue.

“The rift within our society is widening and penetrating the Israel Defense Forces,” he said in a televised speech a day before his dismissal. The schisms, he said, have caused “a clear, immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state. I shall not be a party to this.”

A day after he was sacked, Gallant doubled down on his warning  that the legislation potentially endangers Israel’s security. “According to intelligence reports, there is a clear identification of the situation being an opportunity (for our enemies) to attack Israel,” he reportedly said. “The rift in Israeli society can bring our enemies to a prime opportunity.”

Gallant’s fear feeds into Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s “spider web” theory that Israel, the “Zionist entity,” is internally weak and approaching its end, and that its existence can be militarily challenged.

Gallant, a former admiral, recommended a pause after Herzi Halevi, the chief of staff of the armed forces, warned him of turmoil within the ranks. Halevi informed him that increasing number of reservists were not reporting for voluntary duty due to their opposition to the proposed legislation.

Last week, around 200 reserve pilots who fly combat missions, helicopters and transport planes said they would boycott planned exercises. On March 25, almost 1,000 retired Israeli Air Force pilots endorsed their position.

Reservists fear that the legislation — which would weaken the Supreme Court by allowing the Knesset to override its decisions and essentially allow the government to choose new judges — would undermine Israel’s democratic underpinnings and turn it into an autocracy.

They are also concerned that they could be exposed to criminal prosecution in international tribunals if the independence of the Supreme Court is compromised by Netanyahu’s reforms.

Netanyahu claimed he sacked Gallant due to his failure to dissuade reservists from refusing to serve. “We have a very serious problem here,” Netanyahu said recently. “We must all stand up strongly against refusals.”

He did not mention Gallant’s objection to the pace at which the proposed reforms would be implemented.

Netanyahu, who is currently on trial on charges of corruption, appears determined to proceed with the legislation, which, he claims, would restore the balance between elected parliamentarians and unelected judges. “It is not the end of democracy, it is the strengthening of democracy,” he declared hours after his government pushed through a law that would make it harder to remove him from office.

Its passage prompted Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara to inform Netanyahu that he had broken the law because he had violated a 2020 Supreme Court ruling which forbids him from dealing with legislation that might affect his ongoing trial.

Only days earlier, Netanyahu rejected President Isaac Herzog’s suggestion for a compromise.

In an impassioned prime time speech broadcast on television on March 15, Herzog raised the specter of civil war if the crisis is not resolved. As he said, “The last few weeks have been tearing us apart. Anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war … is a line that we could never reach has no idea what he is talking about. It is precisely now, in the State of Israel’s 75th year of independence, that the abyss is within touching distance.”

Last week, the Institute for National Security Studies issued a dire report warning that the legislation will cripple the economy, damage Israel’s military capabilities, and threaten its relationship with the United States, its chief ally.

Yesterday, the White House expressed “deep concern” and urged Israel to find a compromise as soon as possible. “Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” said a White House spokeswoman.

This statement was released a week after the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, urged Israel to “pump the brakes” on the legislation and after President Joe Biden, in a “candid and constructive” phone call with Netanyahu, told him that “democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark” of Israel’s relations with the United States.

On the eve of Biden’s shot across the bow, Israeli bank and industry leaders called on Netanyahu to scrap the legislation, which would “seriously harm the legal system, undermine the foundations of democracy …  and turn Israel into a dictatorship.”

The former director of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, issued a similar warning, saying that its passage would push Israel to “the brink of dictatorship.”

Tamir Pardo, the former director of the Mossad, was more empathetic, saying that Israel teeters on “the verge of collapse.”

Pardo may be indulging in hyperbole, but what is absolutely true is that Israel has entered uncharted waters as it grapples with the  gravest internal unrest in its history.


About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,