Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is likely to keep his job but will have to publicly apologize to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced on Sunday that he had decided to fire Gallant for publicly calling on the government to halt its judicial overhaul, Hebrew media reported on Friday.
Netanyahu fumed at Gallant for the prime-time address he gave last Saturday evening in which he warned that the national divide over the overhaul had “penetrated the IDF and security agencies,” impacting their operational capacity, and posed a “tangible threat” to national security.
The prime minister took issue with the content of Gallant’s message, given Netanyahu’s desire to pass legislation radically curbing the High Court of Justice’s power. But he was particularly furious over its timing — the defense minister delivered his speech while Netanyahu was visiting London.
Gallant is prepared to issue an apology in writing, but only for the timing of the speech, as he still stands by the original warning he made a week ago, Channel 12 said Friday, without citing any sources. Channel 13 and the Kan broadcaster carried similar reports, all of them unsourced. Channel 12 said that a mere apology would not be sufficient for Netanyahu, and claimed, without elaboration, that Gallant would also have to confirm his loyalty to Netanyahu.
For his part, the defense minister reportedly feels that he was left with no choice but to make the speech after Netanyahu ignored his concerns for weeks regarding the damage the judicial overhaul was causing to the military.
Last Thursday, Gallant planned to give the speech he gave on Saturday night, but Netanyahu managed to convince him to hold off, reportedly assuring him that he would indeed announce a temporary halt to the legislation. Gallant agreed to cancel his speech and waited two more days, but Netanyahu didn’t make any announcement, leading the defense minister to move forward with his original plan.
Less than 24 hours after Gallant’s speech, Netanyahu’s office announced that he was firing the defense minister — a move that sparked spontaneous mass protests in Tel Aviv and across the country that continued into the early hours of Monday morning.
The protests swelled Monday to a strike announcement by Israel’s largest labor union, including the grounding of outgoing flights from Ben Gurion Airport, leading Netanyahu to announce a temporary pause to the legislative push that evening, saying he was going to give a chance for compromise negotiations with the opposition.
The core legislation in the overhaul package, giving the coalition almost complete control over appointments throughout the court system, was scheduled to have been approved in the Knesset this week, but Netanyahu said he was suspending that bill and the advancement of others in the overhaul package until the Knesset returns in a month after the Passover break.
Despite eventually following Gallant’s lead and pausing the legislation, Netanyahu has yet to forgive his defense minister for what he views as a betrayal. However, he has also yet to sign a letter formally notifying Gallant of his removal, which is required for the decision to be finalized.
The defense minister has therefore continued to fill the post, serving in a kind of limbo, which critics say undermines the proper functioning of Israel’s vital security hierarchy.
Netanyahu has reportedly come under pressure from several coalition partners, including Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, to keep Gallant as defense minister, and the Biden administration also expressed its concern after the premier’s decision, while not commenting on Gallant’s removal directly. Channel 13 reported that US officials are privately lobbying Netanyahu to keep Gallant on.
Channel 12 said that the premier also wants Gallant to apologize for what Netanyahu feels has been the defense minister’s failure to rein in the thousands of reservists, including many high-level fighter pilots, who threatened to not show up for volunteer active reserve duty if the overhaul passed. Hundreds of pilots had already begun holding out on attending some training sessions, a move that sparked widespread alarm about Israel’s security.
Netanyahu has argued that the defense establishment hasn’t done enough to crack down on the phenomenon of what he calls “refusals” — a term the reservists dispute, since they are doing volunteer service — allowing the military protests to spread.
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has repeatedly spoken out against refusal to serve, but he has been careful not to criticize the protest leaders in the military, reportedly fearing that doing so would only cause the phenomenon to expand.
Protest leaders have insisted that they will show up when called for emergency duty, even if they skip training, but argue that the drastic steps they are threatening have been the only way that the government will take their concerns about the overhaul seriously and reverse course.
Likud MK David Bitan, who has gone against Netanyahu in recent months, said in a Friday interview with Channel 13 that it was “of course a mistake to fire Gallant,” and that Netanyahu should ditch his advisers who supported the move.
Bitan told Channel 12 that “Gallant was fired only because of what he said.”
“I don’t think it was right and I’m asking every minister in Likud to not take his place,” Bitan said.
The attorney general has warned that the coalition’s current package of legislation — which would give the coalition almost complete control over all judicial appointments, and radically constrain the High Court — would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character.