Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly fired his defense minister on Sunday, a day after calling on the Israeli leader to end the war. Planned Judicial Overhaul which deeply divided the country and fueled growing discontent within the military. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv to block a major highway following the announcement.
The dismissal signals that Netanyahu will press ahead with the overhaul plan this week, which has sparked mass protests, angered military and business leaders and raised concerns among Israel’s allies. Defense Minister Yoav Galant was the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against the plan.
In a brief statement, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister had fired Gallant. Netanyahu later tweeted “We must all stand strong against rejection.”
Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in protest after Netanyahu’s announcement, blocking Tel Aviv’s main artery, transforming the Ayalon highway into a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags and lighting a large bonfire in the middle of the street. Demonstrations were held in Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem, where thousands gathered outside Netanyahu’s private residence.
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The decision comes less than a day after Gallant, a former senior general, called for a pause on the controversial legislation until next month’s Independence Day holiday, citing unrest in the military ranks over the plan.
Gallant expressed concern that divisions in society were hurting the morale of the military and emboldening Israel’s enemies throughout the region. “I see how our energy sources are depleting,” Gallant said.
Although other Likud members indicated they might follow Galant, the party quickly closed ranks on Sunday, clearing the way for his dismissal.
Galit Distal Atbarian, Netanyahu’s public diplomacy minister, said that Netanyahu called Galant into his office and told him that “he no longer trusts him and therefore he is fired.”
Gallant tweeted shortly after the announcement that “the security of the State of Israel has always been and will remain my life’s goal.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Gallant’s dismissal “damages national security and ignores the warnings of all defense officials.”
“The Prime Minister of Israel is a threat to the security of the State of Israel,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir, said he was resigning immediately after Gallant’s dismissal.
“Today’s dangerous decision to fire the defense minister has convinced me that I can no longer continue to represent this government,” Zamir said in a resignation letter shared on Twitter. “I am increasingly concerned about the new government’s policies and, in particular, the judicial reforms it is leading. I believe these reforms undermine the foundations of our democratic system and threaten the rule of law in our country.
The past 18 months as Consul General of Israel in New York have been full and productive, but following today’s events, now is the time to join the fight for Israel’s future to ensure that it remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world. Here is the letter I sent: pic.twitter.com/Sfz8y3ALLv
— Asaf Zamir (@AmbAsafZamir) March 26, 2023
Avi Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet security agency, is expected to succeed him. Dichter reportedly flirted with joining Gallant but instead announced on Sunday that he was backing the prime minister.
Netanyahu’s government is headed for a parliamentary vote this week on the centerpiece of an overhaul — a law that would give the ruling coalition final say on all judicial appointments. It seeks to pass laws that would give parliament the power to override Supreme Court decisions with a basic majority and limit judicial review of laws.
Netanyahu and his allies say the plan would restore a balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an intrusive court with liberal sympathies.
But critics say the constellation of laws will remove checks and balances on Israel’s democratic system and concentrate power in the hands of the ruling coalition. They also say Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.
There are thousands of people taken on the road The past three months have seen protests against the plan in the biggest protests in the country’s 75-year history.
Ilya Yefimovich/Photo Alliance via Getty Images
Leaders of Israel’s vibrant high-tech industry said the changes would scare off investors, former top security officials spoke out against the plan and key allies including the United States and Germany expressed concern.
Dissatisfaction has grown in recent weeks even from within Israel’s army — the most popular and respected institution among Israel’s Jewish majority. A growing number of Israeli reservists, including fighter pilots, threatened to withdraw from voluntary duty last week.
Israel’s military is facing a wave of war occupied the West BankThreats from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group and concerns that archenemy Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons capabilities.
In recent weeks, violence in Israel and the occupied West Bank has risen to heights not seen in years.
Manuel Trajtenberg, head of the National Security Studies Institute, an influential Israeli think tank, said that “while Netanyahu may fire his defense minister, he cannot undo the warning he heard from Gallant.”
Meanwhile, an Israeli good governance group on Sunday asked the country’s Supreme Court to punish Netanyahu for violating a conflict-of-interest agreement to prevent him from dealing with the country’s judiciary during his corruption trial.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which strongly opposes the overhaul, asked the court to compel Netanyahu to comply with the law and grant him fines or jail time for not doing so. It is said that he is not above the law.
“A prime minister who does not obey the courts and the rule of law is privileged and an anarchist,” said the group’s head Eliad Shraga, echoing language used by Netanyahu and his allies against those opposed to the overhaul. “The Prime Minister will be forced to bow before the law and abide by the provisions of the law.”
The prime minister responded that the appeal should be dismissed, saying there was no reason for the Supreme Court to interfere.
Netanyahu has been barred by the country’s attorney general from directly dealing with his government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary, which he is bound by under a conflict-of-interest agreement, and which the Supreme Court acknowledged in a ruling on Netanyahu’s eligibility to serve on the trial. Instead of corruption, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a close confidant of Netanyahu, is leading the reform.
But on Thursday, after parliament passed a law making it harder to remove a sitting prime minister, Netanyahu said he was free from the attorney general’s decision and vowed to step into the crisis and “mend the rift” between the nation. The announcement prompted the attorney general, Gali Bahrav-Miara, to warn that Netanyahu was breaking his conflict of interest agreement by entering the fray.
Guy Lurie, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said the fast-paced legal and political developments have pushed Israel into uncharted territory and a growing constitutional crisis.
“We are at the beginning of a constitutional crisis in the sense that the various governing bodies are at odds over the source of authority and legitimacy,” he said.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three separate cases involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and dismisses critics who say he will try to find a way out of the charges through legal reforms.