Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Sunday sacked his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, barely a day after Gallant became the first member of his cabinet to call for a halt to the government's controversial plans to undermine the country's judiciary.
Announced in a one-line statement by the prime minister's office, the dismissals escalated an already dramatic domestic crisis — one of the most severe in Israel's history — that was sparked by government proposals to give greater control over the selection of Supreme Court judges and to limit the court's powers over justice. parliament.
Mr Gallant's dismissal sparked riotous and spontaneous late-night demonstrations in and around Tel Aviv, where protesters blocked major highways and set fire to at least two streets, and in Jerusalem, where crowds broke through police barriers outside Netanyahu's private residence. .
The crisis has sparked one of Israel's largest waves of protests, tensions with the Biden administration, unrest in the military – and now, after Mr. Gallant and his subsequent expulsion from the government, a rift in the governing coalition.
Mr Gallant was sacked after he urged late on Saturday for the law to be suspended, warning that it caused chaos in the military and therefore was a threat to Israel's security.
“The rifts in our society are widening and penetrating the Israel Defense Forces,” said Mr. Gallant in a televised speech. The division, he said, had caused “a clear and immediate and real danger to the security of the country – I will not be a party to this.”
His warning and dismissal followed a spike in military reservists' refusal to fulfill their voluntary duties in protest of judicial scrutiny. Military leaders have warned that a reduction in reserves, which form a key part of the air force's pilot corps, will soon affect the military's operational capacity.
Mr Netanyahu did not issue a full explanation for his decision to fire Mr Gallant. But briefing Israeli news reporters, his office said Mr Gallant had not done enough to prevent the reserves from refusing to serve, implying Mr Gallant had helped fuel the security risks he warned about.
“We must all stand firm against rejection,” Netanyahu said later on social media, without providing further details.
Mr Netanyahu's decision appears to be a clear signal that the government intends to go ahead with the final vote in Parliament earlier this week on the first part of its proposed overhaul: a law that would give the government more control over who sits on the Supreme Court.
What to Know About Israel's Judicial Overhaul
Mr Gallant's dismissal comes at a time of increasing military threats against Israel and prompted opposition leaders and military experts to question whether Mr Netanyahu has put politics above security.
Within the Israel Defense Forces, morale has fallen amid disquiet about the move against the judiciary. The political crisis comes against the backdrop of escalating Palestinian insurgencies in the occupied West Bank; increasing tensions with Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia; and the fear of an imminent confrontation with Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip.
Mr Gallant's firing also raises the possibility of more friction between Mr Netanyahu and the Biden administration, which has been increasingly vocal about his objections to the judicial plan.
Mr Gallant, 64, was appointed less than three months ago, fending off competition from more extreme coalition members with far less military experience. His appointment has eased fears in Washington that Netanyahu might appoint a right-wing lawmaker to oversee Israel's powerful military, which receives a great deal of US aid and technical assistance.
A former naval commander, Mr Gallant has faced calls from former military colleagues to speak out against judicial overhaul. In recent days, fellow former naval commandos have held protests outside his home to pressure him to split ranks. And reserve pilots send him text messages any time someone decides to suspend service to protest the court's plans.
In response to his dismissal on social media, Mr. Gallant said, “The security of the State of Israel has always been and will always be my mission in life.” There was no immediate announcement of a replacement.
His removal sparked impromptu late-night demonstrations in Tel Aviv, where protesters have gathered en masse for the past week. And it sparked concern among opposition lawmakers and military analysts.
Yossi Yehoshua, military affairs commentator for Yediot Ahronot, a major news outlet, said on social media that Mr. at a time of such danger to Israel is “a danger to the security of the country that can cost lives”.
“There's no other way to put it,” said Mr. Yehoshua.
Gideon Saar, an opposition lawmaker and former Netanyahu ally, said on social media that the move was “an act of madness”.
“There is no precedent in Israel's history for a security minister to be fired because he warned, as required by his position, of security dangers,” he said. “Netanyahu is determined to push Israel into the abyss.”
Israel's consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir, a former opposition MP, resigned in protest at Mr. Gallant.
But in a chaotic Parliament on Sunday, ruling lawmakers appear to have more pressing problems, racing to finalize the text of the proposed law as government leaders behind the scenes scramble to ensure they have the votes to pass it.
Two of Netanyahu's moderate allies announced their support on Sunday for the law, dismissing rumors that it would split ranks. But two other coalition members have supported Mr. Gallant to stop the process. If a third follows, the government could lose its majority.
If passed, the law would complete the first step in a plan to limit judicial authority that has sparked widespread unease outside the military, including among investors, influential American Jews and Israel's foreign allies.
The military reserve has spoken out against the overhaul citing various concerns.
Some oppose the weakening of the judiciary in principle. But the reserves say they also fear being given an illegal military order if the Supreme Court does not have the power to adequately examine government activity. And they fear prosecution in international courts if the Israeli justice system is deemed too weak to try soldiers.
Military leaders privately say they fear full-time soldiers may also start withdrawing. On Sunday, the army chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, ordered all commanders to talk to their subordinates about the need to keep politics away from the military and maintain cohesion, military officials said.
But despite the warnings, coalition lawmakers on the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the body in Parliament tasked with preparing the text of the law, used their majority on the committee on Sunday to overcome hundreds of objections raised by opposition lawmakers.
Netanyahu's government is determined to pass the law this week, before Parliament takes a month-long break.
The push caused havoc on the constitutional committee on Sunday, with its chairman, Simcha Rothman, often allowing only seconds for panel members to consider each of the several hundred opposition objections before voting on them.
Mr Rothman moved so quickly, and the meetings often became frenetic, that it was often difficult for MPs to keep up with what was being discussed. Most of the opposition MPs on the committee were temporarily expelled by Mr. Rothman, accused of interfering with the process.
“Could you behave like a human just once?” Karine Elharrar, an opposition MP, said to Mr Rothman during a particularly bitter altercation.
“I can learn from you how to behave like a human being,” replied Mr. Rothman sarcastically.
Previously, Ms. Elharrar had told coalition lawmakers on the committee: “You are like the Minion,” referring to the mindless cartoon movie character.
“You don't even know what you're voting for,” he said.
The government and its backers say the changes are necessary to make the court more representative of the diversity of Israeli society, and to give elected lawmakers primacy over unelected judges.
Critics say the move would give the government too much power over the judiciary, eliminate one of the few checks into government wrongdoing, and possibly lead to an authoritarian rule.
The shake-up has become a proxy for much deeper social disagreements within Israeli society over the relationship between religion and state, the future of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and ethnic tensions among Israeli Jews.
Orthodox Jews and settlers say courts have historically acted against their interests, and have been dominated by secular judges for too long. Jews of Middle Eastern descent also feel underrepresented in the courts, which are mostly filled by judges of European background.
Gabby SobelmanRonen Bergman and Myra Noveck reporting contribution.