ISRAEL. Jerusalem: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, sacked Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday, sparking mass demonstrations a day after Gallant defied the government and urged a stop to a hotly contested plan to reform the judicial system.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators, many of whom were waving blue and white Israeli flags, flocked to the streets late at night across the nation as news of the dismissal spread. Large groups of people gathered around Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem, and at one point, they broke through a security barrier.
Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition is in trouble about three months after he took office because of the deep divisions that his plans for judicial reform have shown.
“State security cannot be used as a trump card in a political game,” opposition leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid said in a combined statement, adding that Netanyahu “crossed a red line tonight.”
They asked members of Netanyahu’s Likud party not to take part in the crushing of national security.
Netanyahu’s government did not say who would replace Defence Minister Gallant or give any other details when they said he was fired. It said, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided that Defence Minister Yoav Gallant will be fired this evening.”
Shortly after, Gallant, 64, posted on Twitter: “The state of Israel’s security has always been and will always be my life’s mission.”
Gallant was fired by Netanyahu on Saturday after he said that the plans to change the navy were “a clear, immediate, and real threat to the security of the state” and that they should be stopped. In his televised address, Gallant said, “At this point, for the sake of our country, I am willing to take any risk and pay any price.”
Netanyahu reacted on Sunday night as he got ready to approve a central part of the reform package, a bill that would stiffen political control over judicial appointments and give the administration more discretion in appointing Supreme Court justices.
President Isaac Herzog, the head of state who is supposed to be above politics, issued a dire warning earlier this month, saying that the nation faced “disaster” unless a wider agreement could be reached on how to reform the judiciary.
But Netanyahu, who is being accused of corruption that he denies, has said he will keep working on a project that he says is needed to stop activist judges and get the balance right between an elected government and the courts.
The United States said again that democratic principles need to be protected. It also said that it was very worried about what happened on Sunday and that compromise was needed right away.
As demonstrators poured into the streets and police used water cannons to push them back from Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem, meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, where hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets since the start of the year, they have lit several bonfires on a major highway.
It wasn’t immediately obvious if the demonstrations would change the government’s strategy. At least three Likud ministers made public statements stating that it was time to rethink their approach and that they would backstop the legislation if Netanyahu made such a decision. According to the head of the parliamentary committee debating the legislation, discussions will resume on Monday.
Diplomat resigns over Gallant’s dismissal
On Saturday, Gallant, who became the most senior member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, said that he would not support the overhaul of the judiciary, claiming that the demonstrations, which have included an increasing number of military reservists, were also affecting regular forces and jeopardizing national security.
The leader of the Histadrut labour federation, the umbrella group for hundreds of thousands of public sector employees, added to the pressure by expressing his “astonishment” at Gallant’s dismissal and promising a “dramatic” statement on Monday.
Israel’s attorney general in New York announced his resignation in response to the dismissal. Israel’s research universities announced that they would cease holding classes as a result of the legislative push and demanded an immediate suspension of it.
But a number of other Likud lawmakers have agreed with his call to stop the reforms, even though some of Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition partners have called for Gallant to be fired.
The unrest is happening at a very important time in the process of passing the law. This week, the Knesset, where Netanyahu and his allies hold 64 of the 120 seats, is expected to vote on a bill that would give the executive more power over judicial appointments.
However, the protest wave triggered by Gallant’s removal and the widening coalition rifts has cast doubt on how — or even whether — that as-yet unscheduled vote will continue.
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