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Defence minister urges pause to reforms as Israelis protest again

The latest mass protest in Israel's commercial hub Tel Aviv comes days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with a controversial judicial overhaul  despite mounting international alarm
— Tel Aviv (AFP)

Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv Saturday against a controversial judicial overhaul, as Defence Minister Yoav Galant broke ranks to call for a pause to the government reforms.

The latest demonstration to hit Israel's commercial hub came days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with the changes despite mounting international alarm.

But his defence minister said Saturday that "we must stop the legislative process" for a month in view of the divisiveness of the reforms.

"The growing social rift has made its way into the (army) and security agencies. It is a clear, immediate and tangible threat to Israel's security," said Galant, who is a member of Netanyahu's own right-wing Likud party.

"I am committed to Likud values... and placing the State of Israel above all... but major changes on the national level must be made through deliberations and dialogue," he added.

His comments were welcomed by opposition leader Yair Lapid who hailed a "brave and vital step for Israel's security".

Galant called for the halt before lawmakers are due to vote next week on a central part of the government's proposals, which would change the way judges are appointed.

Two other Likud lawmakers tweeted their support for Galant, raising questions over whether the government could count on a majority if it pushes ahead with a vote.

The Tel Aviv protest swelled Saturday to around 200,000 demonstrators, according to Israeli media estimates.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Galant is the first cabinet member to publicly break ranks over the government's controversial judicial reforms

"We're here today to show up and add our voice to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Israelis that support the values that this country was founded on," said high-tech worker Daniel Nisman, mentioning democracy and tolerance.

"This is all we can hope for, that he (Netanyahu) brings us back from the edge of the abyss," the 36-year-old told AFP.

Demonstrations erupted in January after the coalition announced its reform package, which the government says is necessary to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.

- 'Very upsetting' -

But protester Daphne Oren-Magidor, 41, said the overhaul risked Israel "turning into a dictatorship".

"The laws that are being passed right now are laws that are aimed to make the government essentially the sole ruler and destroy the separation of powers," the historian said at a Jerusalem rally.

Israeli demonstrators have announced a "national paralysis week" for next week, including countrywide rallies, protests outside ministers' homes and on Wednesday outside parliament

Thousands of demonstrators marched past the Jerusalem residence of President Isaac Herzog, who has been a key voice for dialogue in the dispute.

Plans to hand more control to politicians and diminish the role of the Supreme Court have been questioned by Israel's top allies including the United States.

US President Joe Biden has expressed "our concerns over these proposals, these proposed judicial reforms", White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.

Netanyahu was also greeted by hundreds of protesters in London, where he met his British counterpart Rishi Sunak on Friday.

During the talks, the British premier "stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms", a spokesperson said.

- 'End the rift' -

Tens of thousands of Israelis throng the heart of Tel Aviv for a 12th straight week of protests against the hard-right government's controversial judicial reforms

Netanyahu said Thursday that the legislation due in the parliamentary chamber next week "does not take control of the court but balances and diversifies it".

A parliamentary committee has amended the draft law with the aim of making it more palatable to opponents, but the opposition has ruled out backing any part of the reform package until all legislative steps are halted.

In response, demonstrators have announced a "national paralysis week", including countrywide rallies, protests outside ministers' homes and on Wednesday outside parliament.

In his televised address on Thursday, Netanyahu said he would do everything "to calm the situation and end the rift in the nation".

Even so, the premier said his administration remained "determined to correct and responsibly advance the democratic reform that will restore the proper balance between the authorities".

Netanyahu came under fire a day later from Israel's attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who said his public intervention was "illegal" due to his ongoing corruption trial.

The top legal official cited a previous court ruling that an indicted prime minister has no right to act on a matter that could place him in a conflict of interest.