As the vast crowds made their way along Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street on Saturday night, for their twelfth successive week of escalating protests against the bid by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to take over the judiciary, many carried the national flag — the most potent possible symbol of their demand for the democratic, tolerant Jewish Israel promised in the Declaration of Independence.
Others brandished a variety of placards and banners — many of them targeting Netanyahu and his main revolutionary henchmen, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman.
But some held posters bearing three other faces — those of Nir Barkat, Avi Dichter and Yoav Gallant — and the slogan “The silent lambs.”
This trio of ministers have been identified by at least some of the protesters as potential weak links in Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, senior Likud figures who might have been expected to campaign against the shattering of Israel’s independent court system — with the dire economic implications that ought to particularly worry Economy Minister Barkat, and the mounting dissent in the security establishment that ought to profoundly concern former Shin Bet chief Dichter and, most of all, Defense Minister Gallant.
But as of the start of Saturday’s rally — opening a fateful week in the history of Israel, with Netanyahu promising it will see the Knesset’s approval of the law giving the coalition near-absolute control over choosing Israel’s judges — none of the three ministers had publicly opposed the drastic legislative blitz.
Barkat has said he would accept the decision were the High Court of Justice to strike down the legislation (the obvious requirement for any law-abiding Israeli, but by no means the line that the coalition would automatically follow, with Levin declaring that it would defy the justices). Dichter privately expressed reservations over the scale and scope of the overhaul during a Likud faction meeting on Monday. And Gallant was widely expected to publicly urge a pause to the legislative process in a speech on Thursday night, but was talked out of it by Netanyahu.
One after another, speakers at Saturday night’s rally — including former justice minister Tzipi Livni, author and historian Yuval Noah Harari, and physicist and grassroots protest organizer Shikma Bressler — rose to denounce Netanyahu, to vow that Israel would not be enslaved by tyrannical rulers, and to urge the coalition, even at this late hour, to pull Israel back from the abyss.
Partway through the speeches, however, word began to spread that Gallant had, finally, spoken. Two days after he had consented to “delay” his public address, in order to give Netanyahu time to resolve the crisis, the defense minister had taken a stand.
He did not echo President Isaac Herzog’s call to “abandon” the entire legislative package. Indeed, he said he backed judicial reform that would “rebalance” the branches of government. But he did call for a pause in the legislative push — directly defying the prime minister, implicitly attempting to compel Netanyahu to put state before self.
And, amid a surge in tangible opposition to the judicial changes that sees more and more reservists saying they will not volunteer for active service if the laws go through, he cited reasons that should terrify all Israelis.
Having spoken at length with officers and the rank and file, Gallant said, he was encountering “unprecedented feelings of anger, pain and disappointment” at what was playing out. “I see the source of our strength eroding,” he warned. “The growing rift in our society is penetrating the IDF and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state.”
The masses on Kaplan Street didn’t know exactly what Gallant had said. Cellphone services were, as ever at such events, overwhelmed. So they were dependent on the speakers for any updates from the world beyond the protests.
Bressler soon provided one. Gallant and Dichter, she announced, had called to halt the legislation. (In fact, Dichter had only reportedly done so, during a lengthy conversation with Netanyahu.)
Cheers and whistles and roars of delight erupted. But Bressler immediately cautioned against misplaced euphoria or relief. “We are not confused,” she declared. “We are not asleep on duty. We demand that the entire legislative package be scrapped.”
What Gallant had told the nation was presumably what he and IDF chief Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar and other security chiefs have repeatedly told the prime minister in widely leaked conversations over recent days and weeks. And those warnings, however dreadful, did nothing to deter Netanyahu and his havoc-wreaking cronies.
Indeed, the prime minister has defied the president, ignored the economists, misrepresented the legislation in addresses to the public, ordered the chief of staff to quash the “insubordinate” volunteer reservists, told the police to crack down on road-blocking protesters, and shrugged off international criticism and concern from the US president on down.
The question is whether a public warning will finally give the prime minister pause — a public warning, that is, from the minister of defense; a public warning that the imminent radical remake of Israel’s governance is causing divides that constitute “a clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state.”
And if even this is not sufficient to stop Netanyahu, will Gallant’s patently genuine concern belatedly prompt enough others in Likud to join the defense minister to block their leader and derail his power grab?
“I will not lend my hand to this,” Yoav Gallant promised Israel on Saturday.
One of the lambs had finally broken his silence.