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Israel: PM Netanyahu dismisses defence minister after judicial reform criticism

Yoav Gallant has been an outspoken critic of Netanyahu's highly-controversial plan to overhaul Israel's judicial system
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant during a news conference with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, Israel, on 9 March (Reuters/File photo)

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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

'If this passes...we can expect a cohesive, extreme government really bent on escalation with Lebanon and Gaza'

-  Meron Rapoport, Israeli analyst

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 canons 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 programme, 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.

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