Israel: PM Netanyahu dismisses Defence minister after judicial reform criticism

Sheren Khalel & Lubna Masarwa

Middle East Eye  /  March 26, 2023

Yoav Gallant has been an outspoken critic of Netanyahu’s highly-controversial plan to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday dismissed Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Netanyahu’s office said, a day after the official publicly criticised the leader. 

Gallant, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, recently spoke out against the prime minister’s highly-disputed plan to overhaul Israel’s judicial system. He urged Netanyahu to suspend the legislation, resulting in his sacking.

Gallant responded to his dismissal on Sunday, saying: “Israel’s security was and always will be my life’s goal”. 

Breaking ranks the day before, Gallant had called for the legislative process to be “stopped” for a month.

“Victory by one of the sides, on the city streets or in the Knesset’s halls, is a loss for the State of Israel,” he said in a speech.

Gallant’s call came just before Knesset lawmakers are set to vote – likely Monday – on a central part of the government’s proposals, which would change the way judges are appointed.

‘A desperate, extreme move’

Israeli analyst Meron Rapoport told Middle East Eye that the sacking was “a desperate, extreme move by Netanyahu”.

“Never have we seen something like this – to fire a minister in such a sensitive position, not even for voting, just for saying that he wants to stop the legislation,” Rapoport said.

The dismissal, he said, could suggest that Netanyahu lacks confidence in the viability of the legislation passing successfully through the Knesset.  

“We should see if other members of the Likud will join Gallant,” Rapoport continued, pointing out that amid such a slim majority just two members breaking rank could turn the tides against the prime minister, possibly resulting in him losing the government majority. 

At least two other Likud lawmakers have tweeted their support for Gallant, underlining questions over whether the government could count on a majority if it pushes ahead with a vote.

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

Late on Sunday, Israel’s consul-general in New York said he was resigning in protest of Gallant’s sacking.

“I can no longer continue representing this Government,” Asaf Zamir said on Twitter. “I believe it is my duty to ensure that Israel remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world.”

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.

“Anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war, with human lives, is a line that we could never reach, has no idea what they are talking about,” Herzog cautioned.

‘Real civil disobedience’

Rapoport said he believed there is a chance that the legislation will fail, but warned that if it were to pass, Israel would be facing even more tumultuous times ahead. 

“If that legislation passes… I think it’s the biggest crisis that Israel has ever known since 1948,” Rapoport said, referring to the year of the country’s creation. “I think we’re talking about real civil disobedience that will be extremely large. I am not taking out of consideration a general strike, with some refusing to pay taxes and others refusing to serve in the army”. 

In Israel, serving in the army is compulsory and refusal has resulted in imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Gallant has expressed concern over the countrywide protests against the judicial overhaul, which have included growing numbers of military reservists, warning that they were affecting regular forces and undermining national security.

Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv Saturday against plans for the controversial judicial overhaul, with activists calling for further protests in the coastal city on Sunday in response to Gallant’s dismissal. 

Rapoport warned that Netanyahu’s government would be further galvanized against such opposition were his legislation to pass. 

“If this legislation passes we can expect a cohesive, extreme government really bent on escalation with Lebanon and Gaza on one hand and escalation within Israel against any liberal opposition to them on the other,” Rapoport said. “I think it’s clear that they have no limit, they don’t want any compromise or negotiate. It will be the most apartheidist, religious fundamentalist coalition that will close ranks and push forward.” 

Following Gallant’s sacking, protests began to mount in other cities across Israel, as people voice support for Gallant’s opposition to far-right government reforms. Others have called on social media for demonstrators to gather at the home of Netanyahu to voice opposition. 

Late on Sunday, Israeli police used water cannons to push back protesters who broke through barricades near Netanyahu’s house in Jerusalem.  

Israel’s police chief warned that at police would allow democratic rights to protest but would not allow public disturbances and damage to symbols of government. 

Israel’s attorney general on Friday accused Netanyahu of “illegal” public intervention on the reform program, 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.

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

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.

Sheren Khalel is a US-based journalist

Lubna Masarwa is a journalist and Middle East Eye’s Palestine and Israel bureau chief, based in Jerusalem


Israeli PM Netanyahu fires Defence minister Gallant: Statement

Al-Jazeera  /  March 26, 2023

Minister Yoav Gallant on Saturday spoke out against the prime minister’s plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed Defence Minister Yoav Gallant a day after Gallant spoke out against the country’s planned judicial reforms, Netanyahu’s office has said.

Gallant, a senior member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party, became the first to break ranks late on Saturday by calling for the legislation to overhaul Israel’s judicial system to be frozen.

In a brief statement, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister had dismissed Gallant. Netanyahu later tweeted “we must all stand strong against refusal”.

Gallant tweeted shortly after the announcement that “the security of the state of Israel always was and will always remain my life mission”.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Sunday, blocking a main highway, following the announcement.

The move signaled that Netanyahu will go ahead this week with the overhaul plan, which has sparked mass protests, angered military and business leaders and raised concerns among Israel’s allies.

Netanyahu’s government is pushing ahead for a parliamentary vote this week on a centrepiece of the overhaul – a law that would give the extreme-right governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments.

Gallant had reportedly voiced concerns that the divisions in society were hurting morale in the military and emboldening Israel’s enemies across the region.

“I see how the source of our strength is being eroded,” Gallant said on Saturday.

‘A new low’

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that Gallant’s dismissal was a “new low for the anti-Zionist government that harms national security and ignores warnings of all Defence officials”.

“The prime minister of Israel is a threat to the security of the state of Israel,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.

Thousands of Israelis poured into 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. Demonstrations also took place in Jerusalem, Beersheba and Haifa.

Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, said that Gallant had not said that he opposed any judicial overhaul, rather “he was simply asking that before the Jewish holidays come, the pause button be hit.

“He was asking that a vote be taken on Independence Day in Israel, which is April 26. So you can see that there is not even room within the cabinet for a discussion, a compromise with the opposition for perhaps a more palatable judicial overhaul that a larger segment of the Knesset [Israeli parliament] would approve of.

“A majority of Israeli society actually oppose, according to recent polls, this particular package of the judicial overhaul.

“We do see that the Knesset is poised to vote on Wednesday for this current package and it appears that Netanyahu and his allies are not interested in waiting any longer than this week,” Ghoneim said.

The planned judicial reforms also seek to pass laws that would grant parliament the authority to override Supreme Court decisions with a basic majority and limit judicial review of laws.

Netanyahu and his allies say the plan will restore a balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.

But critics say the constellation of laws will remove the checks and balances in Israel’s democratic system and concentrate power in the hands of the governing coalition.

Over the last three months, tens of thousands of demonstrators have been taking to the streets joined by military and business leaders, who have spoken out against the proposal.

Leaders of Israel’s vibrant high-tech industry have said the changes will scare away investors; former top security officials have spoken out against the plan; and key allies, including the United States and Germany, have also voiced concerns.

In recent weeks, discontent has even surged 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, have threatened to withdraw from voluntary duty in the past weeks.

Al Jazeera’s Sara Khairat said the move of dismissal is likely to inflame the opposition even more.

“The majority of those that we’ve spoken to at the protests [in Israel] are concerned about these judicial changes the government is trying to bring because they believe they will affect every sector of society,” Khairat said.

“Just a few days ago, the first vote was brought in where the attorney general wouldn’t be able to remove the prime minister, and this is a person [Netanyahu] who right now is on a corruption trial.

“That is one of the reasons the protesters said the government is quite keen to push these judicial overhauls through, because we have ministers that have convictions of tax fraud, convictions of racism.

“The feeling that a lot of Israelis have is that … the way the government is going about these judiciary changes is undemocratic … they’re not against the changes but the way it’s being done.”

The news comes as an Israeli good governance group on Sunday asked the country’s Supreme Court to punish Netanyahu for allegedly violating a conflict of interest agreement meant to prevent him from dealing with the country’s judiciary while he is on trial for corruption.

The request by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel intensifies a brewing showdown between Netanyahu’s government and the judiciary that it is trying to overhaul.