Benjamin Netanyahu faces an even broader revolt after firing his defence minister for breaking ranks

  • On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defence minister.
  • Yoav Galant had called for a pause in the judicial reform process that has seen three months of mass demonstrations.
  • His dismissal saw the storming of Netanyahu’s home, the resignation of Israel’s consul-general in New York, and promises by labour unions and opposition parties to take action this week.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday fired Defence Minister Yoav Galant a day after he broke ranks, citing security concerns in calling for a pause to the government’s controversial judicial reforms.

On a day when 200,000 people took to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest the reforms, Galant – who had been a staunch Netanyahu ally – on Saturday said “we must stop the legislative process” for a month in view of its divisiveness.

The 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, while regularly igniting protests in Israel.

“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 said, also calling for a halt to the protests.

Detractors see the reform project as threatening Israel’s democracy, but the government argues changes are needed to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.

Netanyahu on Sunday decided to “dismiss Defence Minister Yoav Galant”, the prime minister’s office said in a brief statement.

In response to the decision, Galant countered on Twitter: “The security of the State of Israel has always been and will always remain the mission of my life.”

More protests, and resignations

Reaction to Galant’s firing was swift and widespread. Protesters took the streets anew in several Israel cities, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheba, and Haifa. In Jerusalem, some local media organisations reported, barricades protecting Netanyahu’s residence were breached.

In some places, reporters said, protests had the flavour of Tahrir Square, the centre of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

Israel’s consul general in New York quit, saying it was “time for me to join the fight for Israel’s future”. Main opposition leader, and former Israeli prime minister, Yaid Lapid described the firing of Galant as “an act of madness”

Both opposition groups and various civil society organisations, including large labour formations, either promised action on Monday or said they would announce how they would express their anger over the firing soon. 

Slim majority

Galant’s call for a halt to the reforms came before lawmakers are due to vote this coming week on a central part of the proposals, which would change the way judges are appointed.

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

Opposition leader Yair Lapid responded on Twitter to Galant’s dismissal by saying the prime minister can fire Galant, “but he cannot fire reality and cannot fire the people of Israel who are standing up to the insanity of the coalition”.

“The Prime Minister of Israel is a danger to the security of the State of Israel,” Lapid added.

Galant, a former general, was named to his post in December as part of Netanyahu’s coalition with far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies.

He is the first casualty but other high-level officials have also expressed reservations.

Earlier this month, President Isaac Herzog, who holds a largely ceremonial role, voiced concern over the deepening rift in society and presented a proposed compromise, which the government rejected.

Herzog raised the spectre of “a genuine civil war”.

‘Illegal’ intervention

Israel’s attorney general on Friday accused Netanyahu of “illegal” public intervention on the reform programme, after he made a nationwide TV address the previous evening.

Netanyahu is on trial over charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said the prime minister’s televised declaration “and all interventions on your part on the process” of adopting the judicial reforms “is illegal”.

The prime minister must “avoid any involvement in changes in the judicial system and particularly in the process of nominating judges, as this places you in a situation of conflict of interests,” Baharav-Miara argued in an open letter published by the justice ministry.

In his televised address, the prime minister vowed to “responsibly advance” the reforms and “end the rift” they have caused in the nation.

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.

Demonstrators have meanwhile announced a “national paralysis week”, including countrywide rallies, protests outside ministers’ homes and on Wednesday outside parliament.

Netanyahu’s broadcast gave rise to contempt of court accusations filed with the Supreme Court by a non-governmental organisation, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, an anti-corruption group.

The NGO’s complaint, seen by AFP, alleges Netanyahu violated an agreement with the court that an accused prime minister does not have the right to act in a matter that could constitute a conflict of interest.

Netanyahu has until April 2 to respond to the complaint, the Supreme Court said.

(Additional compilation by Phillip de Wet)

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