JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister on Sunday just a day after he called on the embattled premier to halt a controversial plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary.
The proposal to remake Israel’s courts has plunged the nation into crisis, spurring protests in major cities in recent weeks. On Sunday, Netanyahu’s decision to remove Yoav Gallant, a fellow Likud Party member, prompted at least 150 demonstrations across Israel, according to police.
Crowds gathered around the Knesset building in Jerusalem after police deployed water cannons near Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. Some demonstrators hoisted Israeli flags and shouted, “De-mo-cra-cy!” while others set fire to a major highway.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided, this evening , to dismiss Defense Minister Yoav Gallant,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
Gallant responded on Twitter: “The security of the State of Israel has always been and will always remain the mission of my life.”
Gallant was the first cabinet member to break with Netanyahu over the judicial overhaul, saying in a public address that the controversial plan posed a security threat to Israel. Hundreds of reservists have refused to sign up for duty in protest, and thousands more have threatened to do the same if the bills are made into law.
In rare public statements, Israel’s military chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, has warned that Israel’s relatively small army cannot operate without its reservists. Netanyahu waved aside those concerns and pressed the commanders to crack down on dissenters.
“We must all stand up strongly against those who refuse to serve in the military,” Netanyahu tweeted Sunday night after his dismissing Gallant.
On Monday, Netanyahu’s far-right government plans to advance some of the most controversial elements of its legislative blitz, including one bill to allow Knesset members larger leverage in selecting Supreme Court judges and another to allow the return of Aryeh Deri, a Netanyahu ally and the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, whom the Supreme Court ruled was unfit to serve because of a “backlog of criminal convictions.”
Netanyahu did not announce a replacement for Gallant, which on Sunday night left the far-right Bezalel Smotrich as the only active minister in the Defense Ministry. Smotrich, a radical settler from the West Bank who in his youth was interrogated by Israel’s security forces for involvement in planning a terrorist attack, said this month that Israel should “wipe out” a Palestinian town and later, in a visit to France, that there was “no such thing” as the Palestinian people.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right national security minister, another once-fringe settler extremist, has come out in support of the reform, saying that Gallant had “surrendered to the blackmail of the anarchists” — a word he has frequently used to describe the demonstrators.
Ben Gvir has vowed to advance legislation that would cancel Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, in which he has been indicted in three separate cases and faces potential prison time.
Netanyahu has claimed that the judicial overhaul would have no effect on his trial and on Thursday announced that he will become personally involved with its advancement, despite directives from the attorney general to refrain from such a move because of a clear conflict of interest.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have flooded the streets in recent weeks, blocking intercity highways and calling on Netanyahu to stop the move that they warn will slide Israel toward a dictatorship. Among the most vocal opponents have been the heads of Israel’s military and security establishment, who say that, absent Supreme Court investigations and advice on international military law, Israeli soldiers could become subject to war crime charges from international groups.
“We are facing a clear, immediate and tangible danger to Israel’s security,” tweeted Benny Gantz, a member of the opposition and former defense minister. “Tonight Netanyahu put politics and himself above security … Yoav Galant put the security of the country above all other interests.”
Former Israeli military chief Gadi Eisenkot told Israel’s Channel 12 News, “Firing Defense Minister Galant is a disgrace to Netanyahu’s legacy and a dangerous bet on all of our lives.”
Gallant’s ouster quickly accelerated one of the most serious domestic crises in Israel’s history.
In less than four months since the new governing coalition announced the surprise plans to remake the courts, the country’s largest and most diverse protest movement exploded, with the growing number of army and air force reservists who are boycotting service beginning to hamper military readiness.
Tech companies and venture capital firms have begun to avoid the “Start-Up Nation,” amid a warning from the finance ministry that the blowback could seriously harm Israel’s economy.
Now the chaos is engulfing the governing coalition itself on the eve of expected key votes on the judicial overhaul.
Gallant’s firing marks the start of intensive jockeying within the cabinet to pressure defectors. At least one Likud member who was considered a possible opponent of the legislation — Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter — said Sunday he would vote with Netanyahu after all, amid rumors that he was a candidate to replace Gallant as defense minister.
Another emerging holdout, former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, indicated in a radio interview he was prepared to abstain from the vote rather than support the judicial bills. At least four coalition members would need to vote no or abstain to derail the court changes.
Within hours of Gallant’s firing, Asaf Zamir, Israel’s consul general [in] New York, tweeted, “I resign.”
Action in the parliament reached a fever pitch Sunday. The committee advancing the key piece of legislation — a measure giving the coalition greater say in picking judges — dispensed with hundreds of opposition objections, sometimes allowing only seconds for debate and at times barring opposition lawmakers from the room, according to media reports.