Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday evening, his office said, a day after the Likud member called to pause legislation of the government’s judicial overhaul.
In a brief statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu had decided to transfer Gallant from his post. It was unclear what other position he would be given, if any, but he still would remain a member of Knesset. His likely replacement is seen as Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter.
Responding to his ouster, Gallant tweeted, “The security of the State of Israel has always been and will always remain my life’s mission,” while opposition leader Yair Lapid said the move proved Netanyahu is a “danger” to Israel.
Thousands of Israelis took to the streets in protest after Gallant’s dismissal was announced, with major protests in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Beersheba and beyond.
The prime minister and Gallant reportedly had not spoken since Thursday.
A statement attributed to sources close to the prime minister said Netanyahu had decided to fire Gallant over the “feeble and weak response against the refusals in the IDF.”
In a tweet later Sunday, Netanyahu said: “We must all stand up strongly against refusals.”
Increasingly, reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have warned that they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which they charge the country will become under the government’s plan.
Soldiers have expressed concern that a lack of international trust in the independence of Israel’s judiciary could expose them to prosecution in international tribunals over actions they were ordered to carry out during service.
Earlier Sunday, the PMO denied reports that Netanyahu had rejected a request by Gallant to convene the security cabinet for discussions on the security implications of the judicial overhaul, saying no such request was ever made.
On Saturday night, Gallant joined those urging that the judicial overhaul legislative process be suspended, a first major sign of dissent from within the ruling coalition.
“I see the source of our strength eroding,” Gallant warned in a televised speech. “The growing rift in our society is penetrating the IDF and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state. I will not lend my hand to this.”
“For the sake of Israel’s security, for the sake of our sons and daughters, the legislative process should be stopped now, to enable the nation of Israel to celebrate Passover and Independence Day together, and to mourn together on Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day,” he said.
A senior defense source speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity earlier on Sunday said Israel’s enemies view the Jewish state as weak, due to the ongoing controversy over the government’s judicial overhaul. The official said his view was shared by military chief Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, and Mossad chief David Barnea.
Meanwhile, two Likud Knesset members who had signaled they could vote against parts of the government’s judicial overhaul reversed course on Sunday and promised to toe the party line, seemingly quashing a brewing internal rebellion before it could get off the ground.
Dichter, the agriculture minister who is reportedly being considered as a replacement for Gallant, and freshman MK Eli Dallal both said that they would vote in favor of the various bills being pushed through the Knesset as part of the government’s plan to substantially constrain the authority of the judiciary and give the coalition near-complete control over the appointment of judges.
Gallant’s stance drew public support from Likud MKs Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan, raising hopes within the opposition that an internal Likud rebellion could keep the coalition from being able to pass the overhaul legislation.
After the defense minister’s ouster, Edelstein called for a special confidential meeting at the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which he chairs.
In a statement, the committee said its members, and Gallant, would convene to discuss the “consequences of social tensions in Israel on the defense establishment.”
The statements from Dichter and Dallal, reminders of the fealty Netanyahu can extract from allies even under duress, likely mean that the coalition will still have the needed numbers to pass the bills.
Dichter’s decision to back the overhaul, widely seen as a bid to secure the defense minister post, drew widespread criticism, with protesters holding a demonstration outside his Ashkelon home on Sunday evening.
Responding to Gallant’s ouster, opposition leader Yair Lapid assailed Netanyahu, calling the move “a new low for an anti-Zionist government that is harming national security and ignoring the warnings of all security figures.”
“The Israeli prime minister is a danger to the State of Israel,” he said.
National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, Gallant’s predecessor as defense minister, said Israel is facing a “clear, immediate and tangible danger” to its security.
“The danger has become worse. Netanyahu put politics and himself over security this evening,” Gantz said.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, also a former defense minister, called Netanyahu’s axing of Gallant “dictatorship at its best.”
“The defense minister dared to express the deep concern of all the heads of the security branches over the disintegration of the IDF and fatal harm to Israel’s security,” Liberman said on Twitter. “Instead of listening to [Gallant] and convening the cabinet, Netanyahu chose the path of all dictators — silencing voices.”
Labor chief Merav Michaeli said the move shows that, “now, more than ever, Netanyahu is very dangerous to Israel.”
Gideon Sa’ar, the former justice minister from the National Unity party, called the firing of Gallant “an act of madness.” Sa’ar said there was “no precedent in the history of Israel for a defense minister to be fired for issuing a warning, as his job required, about security dangers… Every day Netanyahu is in power endangers Israel and its future.”
Thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Sunday night, after protest leaders announced a spontaneous demonstration outside the military’s headquarters and Defense Ministry offices in Tel Aviv, as well as in other cities, following Gallant’s ouster.
Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, meanwhile, tweeted, “Reform now!” having urged Netanyahu to fire the defense minister after Saturday’s speech.
Amid massive protests bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, Netanyahu said in a speech Thursday night that he would soften parts of the planned shakeup going forward. But he also said the Knesset would vote in the coming days on a bill to put key Supreme Court appointments, including its presidency, directly in coalition control. It is not yet clear when the vote will be held, though Tuesday has been mentioned as a potential target. The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convened Sunday morning to continue the process of preparing and approving the bill for its second and third (final) Knesset readings.
Opponents of the overhaul have drawn a line in the sand on the appointments bill, saying it will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power, and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character.