Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday sacked Defense Minister Yoav Gallant amid another round of protests against a proposed overhaul of the judicial system, a day after Gallant broke ranks with the government and urged in favor of a temporary halt for compromise talks.
At a key moment in the passage of the legislation, Gallant warned on Saturday that the reforms risked “a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state.”
A day earlier, 200 reservist pilots and 100 doctors in the military reserves had told Gallant they would refuse to serve if the government passes the reforms.
“At this time, for the sake of our country, I am willing to take any risk and pay any price,” Gallant said in his televised address.
Netanyahu’s government is poised to ratify a central part of the Supreme Court overhaul package—a bill that proponents like Israel’s justice minister say is needed to rein in activist judges and restore the proper balance between an elected government and the judiciary.
The Supreme Court’s chief justice, Israel’s attorney general, and Israeli opposition leaders oppose the move. They say the changes risk being conducive to corruption and reduce judicial independence—threatening Israeli democracy.
In the current system, the justices of the court, which has been criticized by some for left-wing activism, choose their own successors.
The bill is expected to be brought for ratification this week in the Knesset, where Netanyahu and his allies control 64 out of 120 seats.
Some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners called for Gallant to be sacked for his comments on Saturday while others backed him.
Netanyahu made the decision to sack Gallant on Sunday night. He said that he had also heard from others in the military who support the reforms, who threatened refusal of their service unless the legislation was passed.
The prime minister warned against entertaining such threats.
“Surrendering to [IDF] refusal is a terrible danger to the State of Israel,” Netanyahu told reporters at a briefing in London, local media reported. “It won’t stop with just one side, it will move from side to side.”
In announcing Gallant’s dismissal, Netanyahu’s office did not name a replacement nor give any other details. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided this evening to dismiss Defence Minister Yoav Gallant,” it said.
12 Weeks of Protests
The reforms to the Supreme Court were first announced on Jan. 4 by Justice Minister Yariv Levin when Netanyahu took office three months ago. Levin, along with other critics of the high court, say the unelected judges have too much power.
At the time, Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges that he denies, said the proposals have the intent to restore balance between the three branches of government and would be implemented “with careful consideration while hearing all of the positions.”
In response, opponents to the reforms have organized regular protests for the past 12 weeks against the bill aimed at giving the executive more say in the appointment of judges.
Responding to the pressure, at least three Likud ministers have said publicly that they would support halting the legislation if Netanyahu decided to do so, and that it is time for the government to reevaluate the strategy. Levin and his allies have said they remain committed to the reforms.
Earlier this month, President Isaac Herzog, the head of state, who is supposed to remain above politics, warned that the country faced “disaster” unless a broader consensus could be reached on how to overhaul the judiciary.
Defense Minister Cites Internal Pressure
Gallant on Saturday became the most senior member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party to say he would not support the judicial overhaul, saying the protests, which have included growing numbers of military reservists, were also affecting regular forces and undermining national security.
Shortly after his sacking, Gallant, 64, wrote on Twitter: “The state of Israel’s security has always been and will always be my life’s mission.”
Opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz responded to the sacking in a joint statement, “State security cannot be a card in the political game. Netanyahu crossed a red line tonight.”
They called on members of Netanyahu’s Likud party not to have a hand in “the crushing of national security.”
The head of the Histadrut labour federation, the umbrella organisation for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, said he was “astonished” by Gallant’s removal and promised a “dramatic” announcement on Monday.
Israel’s research universities announced they would stop holding classes due to the legislative push, calling for its immediate freeze. Overseas, Israel’s consul-general in New York said he was resigning over the dismissal.
It was not immediately clear whether the protests will impact the government’s tactics, and if and when the vote will proceed. The head of the parliamentary committee deciding on the legislation said discussions would continue on Monday.
‘Week of Paralysis’ Planned
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets late at night across the country on Saturday in ahead of the planned “Week of Paralysis” protests as the government drew nearer to passing its bill.
In recent weeks, senior Finance Ministry officials have warned of the economic impacts of the protests, and business leaders have sounded the alarm for their companies’ future.
On Saturday, upon news of Gallant’s dismissal, Crowds gathered outside Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem, at one point breaching a security cordon.
Police used water cannons to push them back.
Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, where hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets since the beginning of the year, protesters lighted a large bonfire on a main highway.
The crisis comes as Israel’s security establishment has been bracing for potential violence in the coming weeks as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan overlaps with the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter celebration.
Over the past year, Israeli defense forces have been conducting nearly daily raids in the West Bank. In response to Palestinian attackers, Israeli officers have killed more than 250 Palestinian fighters and unfortunately, civilians, in anti-terror operations. More than 40 Israelis and foreigners have also been killed by crossfire during the operations.
Reuters contributed to this report.