Netanyahu belatedly reverses course on Gallant. If only he’d do the same on autocracy

After two weeks, the PM finally realized that the public wouldn’t forgive him for sacking his defense minister. What about a far more essential retreat, on his judicial revolution?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with OC Central Command Yehuda Fox, at the scene of a terror attack in the Jordan Valley on April 7, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with OC Central Command Yehuda Fox, at the scene of a terror attack in the Jordan Valley on April 7, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Tuesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

He shamefully blamed the opposition for the surge in attacks on Israel across multiple fronts, and falsely accused his predecessors of emboldening our enemies. He misrepresented as “refusers” those volunteer reservists who’ve made clear they won’t serve a dictatorship. He backed his pyromaniacal police minister’s bid for a new military force. He shrugged off the president of the United States’ concerns about the declining health of Israeli democracy under his leadership. He accused the European leaders who have hosted him in recent weeks of duplicity.

But while he buried it, in just a few short sentences, near the end of his latest rhetorical assault on the nation, the key headline from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech and press conference on Monday night was that he was reversing his decision from two weeks ago and reinstating Yoav Gallant as minister of defense.

Recalling that he met on Sunday with Yair Lapid, Netanyahu said that he’d asked the opposition leader, “When you declare that the State of Israel is collapsing, how do you think our enemies interpret this?… They believe they can take us on, with combined terror from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza.”

In fact, however, it was his Likud party colleague Gallant, the man he had appointed to ensure that Israel’s enemies cannot “take us on,” who, on March 25, issued the most potent warning about this nation being torn apart. Gallant told Israelis and the watching world that the national rift triggered by Netanyahu’s plan to politicize and neuter the judiciary was “penetrating the IDF and security agencies.” And this, Gallant stressed bleakly, “poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state.”

Gallant was fired not because his horrifying public warning was false and alarmist. He was fired because it was accurate — as that 34-rocket barrage from Lebanon, the worst since 2006, underlined on Thursday. He was fired because he told the public he was elected to serve that the prime minister was ignoring his concerns. He was fired for his entreaty to pause the judicial overhaul legislative blitz, and instead allow time for a negotiated reform process and the healing of the debilitating national divide. He was fired, perhaps most of all, because he challenged Netanyahu’s “Mr. Security” credentials.

Having appallingly kept Gallant in limbo for two weeks — the head of the nation’s security hierarchy cold-shouldered at events they both attended, not knowing from minute to minute whether he was about to be cut loose, even in the midst of a terrorism surge — Netanyahu very belatedly concluded that he had no choice but to restore the defense minister.

Israeli security forces walk next to a bank damaged by rocket fire from Lebanon in Shlomi, northern Israel, near the Lebanese border, Thursday, April 6, 2023. The branch was closed for Passover. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

It had taken him a day, on Monday, March 27, to make the political calculation that his dismissal of Gallant was one outrageous step too far even for some of his hitherto unstintingly supportive coalition colleagues, and that he would indeed have to make a show of supporting a dialogue on the judicial overhaul because he could not be certain, at that fraught moment, of a Knesset majority to pass the first key law in the overhaul package.

But it took him two full weeks to conclude that the public would not forgive him for sacking the defense chief. Two weeks, ongoing protests, and fast-falling numbers in the opinion polls to which he claims to pay no heed.

The question is whether a similar process is underway as regards his power grab — whether recognition is beginning to dawn that he can either seize absolute authority or he can start to rehabilitate this country, but he cannot do both.

The question is whether a similar process is underway as regards his power grab — whether recognition is beginning to dawn that he can either seize absolute authority or he can start to rehabilitate this country, but he cannot do both

Yoav Horowitz, one of his former chiefs of staff who has now joined the protests against him, assessed in an interview with Haaretz on Friday that Netanyahu has come to see himself as “something between an emperor and the president of a superpower” and is bent on becoming Israel’s Vladimir Putin. “I joined him for meetings with Putin,” said Horowitz of his former boss. “I saw his worship and fawning behavior toward him. I saw how much he desired to be like him.”

Horowitz also predicted that Netanyahu “won’t rest until the entire judicial system is on the floor, begging for forgiveness” for having put him on trial.

The principal legislation that would indeed put the judiciary “on the floor” — legislation giving the coalition near-absolute control of judicial appointments — is locked and loaded, having been formally submitted to the Knesset for its final readings, ready to become law at short notice.

At the same time, a dialogue on judicial reform, for which Gallant and voices across almost every sector of our society pleaded, is taking place under President Isaac Herzog’s oversight.

President Isaac Herzog hosts delegations from Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity for judicial negotiations at his residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In the Q&A after his speech Monday night, Netanyahu was asked about being “persona non grata” at the White House in the wake of Biden’s call on him to “walk away” from the current overhaul legislation, and the president’s refusal to extend him an invitation to visit.

The prime minister used a curious formulation in response to the reporter’s question — characteristically combative, but seemingly reassuring: “I assume you’ll have an agreement,” he told his questioner, apparently referring to that dialogue at the President’s Residence. “And then what will you say? When you have a visit, what will you say then? Don’t worry. There’ll be a visit.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 10, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu and his coalition allies immediately and brusquely rejected Herzog’s own alternate judicial reform plan last month, and the representatives Netanyahu has dispatched to the Herzog talks are trusted loyalists hitherto committed to the radical legislation as it stands.

With Netanyahu vowing, even as he suspended the overhaul two weeks ago, that it will pass “one way or another,” there is no reason to doubt that the legislation will be revived after the Knesset returns at the end of the month.

Continuing Monday night’s theme, Netanyahu could easily blame the opposition for the failure to achieve consensual terms for reform, highlight his coalition’s decisive election victory, point to the mass pro-overhaul protests currently being planned, and legislate to turn Israel into a tyranny of the majority.

Or as in the case of the reinstated Yoav Gallant, he could, however belatedly and however improbably, reverse course, and enable the start of a nation-saving process of healing, a process that would rebuild the cohesion, unity and resilience he has cynically dismantled, and thus salvage our economy, our ties with allies and our deterrence against those emboldened enemies.

“And then what will you say?” he asked on Monday night.

Better, so much better late than never.

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