Israel's Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Saturday called on the government to halt legislation on changes to the judiciary, saying the bitter dispute over the measures posed a danger to national security.
Although other members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right governing coalition have voiced misgivings about the contentious judicial shake-up, Mr Gallant is the first senior cabinet member to clearly and publicly object.
“The deepening split is seeping into the military and security agencies — this is a clear, immediate and real danger to Israel's security. I will not facilitate this,” Mr Gallant said on TV.
“Legislation at this time must be stopped.”
At least two fellow Likud party lawmakers, Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan, came out in support of Mr Gallant. They echoed his call for justice reforms to be made, but only with broad agreement.
It was unclear whether Mr Netanyahu, wrapping up a visit to London and aiming to finalise legislation on at least one bill in the coming week, would heed their call.
Mr Netanyahu — on trial for corruption — is under pressure from others in his cabinet who want him to proceed this week with a bill that would grant the ruling coalition more sway in selecting judges. Critics say it would undermine judicial independence.
Highlighting tensions in Mr Netanyahu's cabinet, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir urged Mr Netanyahu to fire Mr Gallant, who he said had caved to opposition pressure.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid praised Mr Gallant's “brave step” and said he was ready for talks on the reforms once the government stops the legislation.
But with 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset, the coalition would still have enough votes to pass legislation without Mr Gallant, unless more lawmakers withdraw their support.
The judicial overhaul plan, announced on January 4, has plunged Israel into its worst political crisis in years, as mass protests sweep the country.
It has also stirred concern abroad and warnings about a serious economic backlash.
Mr Gallant has voiced worries about a wave of Israelis who have pledged not to heed call-ups for military reserve duty if the reforms proceed, saying this could weaken the country's war readiness and national cohesion.
Despite Mr Netanyahu's pledge this week to enshrine civil rights in law and defer some chapters of the overhaul during parliament's April recess, the opposition has not weakened.
Israeli media said around 200,000 Israelis rallied against the plan in Tel Aviv on Saturday, along with tens of thousands more across the country.
“We are here fighting for our democracy,” protester Hila Bron, 41, told Reuters.
The government says the reforms, which would hand more control to politicians and diminish the role of the Supreme Court, are necessary to rebalance powers between elected legislators and the judiciary.
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 told AFP at a Jerusalem rally.
Thousands of demonstrators marched past the Jerusalem residence of President Isaac Herzog, who has called for dialogue to reach a consensus on the reforms.
The planned changes have also been questioned by Israel's top allies including the US.
President Joe Biden has expressed “our concerns over these proposals, these proposed judicial reforms”, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.
Mr 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 representative said.