(JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, exactly a day after Gallant called for a stop to far-reaching reforms to the judiciary that have divided the country and that the defense minister said posed security risks to Israel.
The dramatic move could accelerate a crisis that Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, who has also called for a stop to the legislation, has said could culminate in a bloody civil war. It could also further fray ties with the United States, where Gallant has been steering coordination on defense cooperation with his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided, this evening (Sunday, 26 March 2023), to dismiss Defense Minister Yoav Gallant,” Netanyahu’s office said in a single sentence just after 9 p.m.
“The security of Israel always has been and always will be my life’s mission,” Gallant, a decorated general, said in a statement.
In a surprise address late Saturday, Gallant had called for a pause to the judiciary reforms, saying that the divisions they were sowing among Israelis were making the country vulnerable to security threats, including from Iran, Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah, the terrorist movement in Lebanon.
The firing comes at a potentially vulnerable moment, as the month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins and less than two weeks before Passover. The coincidence of the two has in the past spurred tensions and led to violence.
“This is an insane act. This man is leading us to the destruction of the Third Temple,” Avigdor Liberman, one of coterie of onetime confidants of Netanyahu who turned against him and joined or established opposition parties, told the Israeli government broadcaster, Kan, about the prime minister. “This man is dismantling the entire defense infrastructure.”
Israeli media said Netanyahu was especially furious for two reasons: Gallant delivered his address while Netanyahu was in London, and did not give Netanyahu advance notice; and Gallant had made clear he would vote against the first major reform, which is due to come to a final vote on Monday.
The vote Monday will be on a law that would drastically reduce the influence of the courts in naming judges, and afford more power to the governing coalition. Another law Netanyahu hopes to pass soon would effectively gut the power of the Supreme Court to review legislation.
The court is seen as a bulwark defending the rights of vulnerable populations, including women, the LGBTQ community, Arabs and non-Orthodox Jews.
Gallant’s speech Saturday night had laid bare divisions within Netanyahu’s Likud party. Two other Likud lawmakers immediately echoed his call for the legislative process to be suspended until the end of April and for talks with the opposition. It was not clear whether the two, Yuri Edelstein and David Bitan, would vote against the judiciary appointments law on Monday. If they do, that would give Netanyahu a bare minimum majority of 61; a single further defection would stop the legislation.
There had been speculation that Avi Dichter, like Gallant, a veteran of the security establishment, would join Gallant. Now, the media is reporting that Netanyahu planned to ask Dichter, the agriculture minister, to replace Gallant, a signal that Netanyahu believes he has won over Dichter.