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Israel: Netanyahu fires defense minister, protests ensue

March 27, 2023

Yoav Gallant was the first Cabinet member to break ranks with Benjamin Netanyahu over plans to overhaul the judiciary. His dismissal prompted further protests, and a diplomat's resignation.

Israel | Tausende Israelis protestieren gegen die Entlassung des Verteidigungsministers Netanjahu
Image: Mostafa Alkharouf/AA/picture alliance

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday dismissed Defense Minister Yoav Gallant  after he called on the government to halt its controversial judicial overhaul.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided, this evening, to dismiss Defense Minister Yoav Gallant," his office said.

Yoav Gallant, archive image from January 2023.
Defense Minister Gallant was dismissed a day after appealing on television to his government to reconsider its judicial reformsImage: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/AP/dpa/picture alliance

The decision was followed by more protests in Tel Aviv and other cities on Sunday evening against the proposed reforms.

Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after the Israeli leader fired his defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 26, 2023.
Protest organizers had already called for a week of rolling demonstrations, and Gallant's dismissal added extra impetus to those taking place on SundayImage: Oren Ziv/AP Photo/picture alliance

The use of water cannons was reported at several of the protests, including one outside Netanyahu's private residence in Jerusalem. 

A water cannon is used as people attend a demonstration after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the defense minister and his nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 26, 2023.
Water cannons were also used in Jerusalem by law enforcementImage: Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS

Opposition complains, diplomat resigns, US voices concern

Soon after Gallant's dismissal, Israel's consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir, announced his resignation on Twitter. 

"Today's decision to fire the Minister of Defense, convinced me that I can no longer continue representing this Government," Zamir wrote.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the leaders of the two largest opposition parties, issued a joint statement, calling on members of Netanyahu's Likud party not to have a hand in "the crushing of national security." 

"State security cannot be a card in the political game. Netanyahu crossed a red line tonight," Gantz and Lapid wrote. 

Meanwhile, the US government said that it was "deeply concerned" by the developments. 

"Democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship," US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement. Watson said Washington urged Israeli leaders "to find a compromise as soon as possible." 

What had Gallant said? 

Gallant, who is a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, on Saturday called on the government to stop its plans to overhaul the judiciary.

"We must stop the process in order to start a dialogue," Gallant said in a televised speech, saying Israel's security was at risk. 

Israeli military leaders had also criticized the proposal. 

Gallant, formerly a leading general, was the most senior member of Netanyahu's more centrist Likud party to date to urge the prime minister to abandon the plan.

After his dismissal, he wrote, "The security of the State of Israel has been and will always remain my life's mission." 

Netanyahu dismisses defense minister: DW's Tania Krämer

Why are the reforms contentious? 

The government announced the planned changes in January arguing they were needed to restore a balance between the executive and judicial branches, claiming that judges had become too interventionist.

The judicial overhaul would give the government sway in choosing judges and limit the Supreme Court's power to strike down laws.

Opponents of the legal changes say the right-wing ruling coalition is seeking to erode the separation of powers in Israel, putting the country on a path toward autocracy.

Some indications of the Likud party being willing to rethink began to emerge late on Sunday as the protests intensified. Culture Minister Micky Zohar, a close Netanyahu ally, said the party would back the prime minister if he moved to postpone the reforms. Likud is the largest party within the broad ruling coalition, but only accounts for about half of its seats in the Knesset.

lo, msh/jsi (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)