From pariah to bosom buddy in 7 weeks: Netanyahu’s rehabilitation of Yoav Gallant

It didn’t take long for the prime minister to go from kicking his defense chief to the curb to courting him for photo ops; some of it has to do with national security

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the end of a press conference, May 10, 2023. (Haim Zach / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the end of a press conference, May 10, 2023. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Seven weeks. That was all the time it took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rehabilitate Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, after, on the evening of March 26, the prime minister’s spokesman sent a laconic message to reporters stating that he had “decided to remove… Gallant from his position.”

That was all Netanyahu had to say at the time. Nothing about who would be guiding the defense establishment through the turbulent Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Nothing about the cause for the dismissal, though it clearly had something to do with Gallant saying in public that his government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary were threatening to undermine the military, not to mention Israeli society.

And suddenly, seven weeks later, Netanyahu is lionizing his defense chief. The two men are being photographed together left and right, and the prime minister, at the height of last week’s Gaza operation, found the time to visit the home of Gallant, who had recently lost his mother, for a condolence call, accompanied by his wife, Sara. The pictures that emerged from that visit were pleasant, affectionate, empathetic.

Throughout the five-day battle with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which ended with an Egyptian-mediated truce Saturday night, the prime minister’s team released reams of photos of the commander-in-chief in full battle mode, huddling with military brass and his security advisers. But what stood out were the photos of a renewed closeness with Gallant.

The ostensible shift in sentiment can be attributed partly to real security considerations. Gallant’s dismissal, which did not go into immediate effect, seemed to catch the attention of Palestinian factions in Lebanon, which saw it as a sign of Israeli weakness. On April 6, about a week later, those factions fired 34 rockets into the north of the country – the first significant volley since the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Israel’s defense leadership could also ill afford to appear divided in the eyes of terror groups in Gaza. The flood of amicable photographs do something to temper the perception of a split.

In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consults with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (L) and Mossad chief David Barnea (C) as the former observed the seven-day mourning period for his late mother, May 12, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

But there is perhaps another interest at play, beyond state security. Gallant is the most popular minister in a government that the public is largely fed up with. Case in point: The thousands of people — the vast majority of whom are not aligned with the political right — who spontaneously poured into the streets in protest minutes after he was fired, setting in motion a series of events that culminated in the overhaul being shelved the following day.

Netanyahu’s dismissal of Gallant came after he was goaded to make the move by firebrands such as far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and his own son Yair. Since then, Ben Gvir has kept up his steady criticism of Gallant on a plethora of issues – from the frozen overhaul to the release of the bodies of slain Palestinian terrorists to their families.

These attacks haven’t helped Ben Gvir’s popularity – since the establishment of the government, the far-right leader has consistently polled as its least popular member. Gallant, by contrast, is seen as an asset, a perception that has only become more firmly established in the past seven weeks.

At the height of the Gaza campaign, when he and the heads of the defense establishment were deeply immersed in directing the military operation, the defense minister was informed of the death of his mother. Gallant, who lost his father at the age of 17, had a strong lifelong bond with his mother and mentioned her frequently. Even on the night of his dismissal, he published a recording of a phone conversation in which she praised him for his principled stance.

Yet despite the devastating news, Gallant did not abandon his post for even a moment, clearly conveying to the public that he was in control and that his foremost priority was to direct the Gaza campaign and ensure its success.

For the prime minister, who lives by polling, nothing was easier than choosing Gallant over the deeply unpopular Ben Gvir, or even Justice Minister Yariv Levin, formerly Netanyahu’s closest ally, who has been threatening to quit the government unless at least some of the judicial overhaul legislation is passed in the coming weeks.

Thus it was that within a mere seven weeks, Netanyahu succeeded in pulling a spectacular (some may say spectacularly cynical, face-saving) about-face – turning Gallant from party pariah into the most important person in the picture.

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