Netanyahu’s office says security tensions delaying firing of defense minister

Statement to media comes a week after PM announced sacking of Yoav Gallant, and amid reported talks over possibility of the Likud member apologizing and keeping his job

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, at an army ceremony on April 3, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, at an army ceremony on April 3, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is delaying a decision on formally firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant due to ongoing security tensions, the Prime Minister’s Office said Monday in a statement.

“In light of the ongoing security situation, Prime Minister Netanyahu will only [make a decision] regarding the defense minister at a later date,” the statement read, without elaborating on the nature of the security situation.

Netanyahu’s office announced last Sunday that the premier had decided to fire Gallant after the latter called on the government a day earlier to halt its judicial overhaul and warned that opposition to it had “penetrated the IDF and security agencies,” impacting their operational capacity. Despite the announcement, Netanyahu never submitted a formal letter of dismissal required for the decision to be finalized.

But last Sunday’s announcement sparked spontaneous mass protests in Tel Aviv and across the country that continued into the early hours of Monday morning.

The protests swelled last 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 compromise negotiations a chance.

Netanyahu’s decision to indefinitely hold off on making a decision about Gallant did not appear to assuage opposition members who were unconvinced by his rationale.

Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after the Israeli leader fired his defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 26, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Gallant’s predecessor, Benny Gantz — head of the opposition National Unity party — tweeted that Netanyahu should immediately announce that he is not firing Gallant, given the security threat. “Israel’s security is not some audition for a show or movie. Israel’s citizens need a set defense minister. Not in the future. Now,” he wrote.

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, who also served as a defense minister under Netanyahu, accused the premier of “playing ego games,” claiming that instead of dealing with the security situation he was holding talks over what type of apology Gallant would need to offer.

“There is nothing more detrimental to the security services than instability and uncertainty regarding the identity of the defense minister, who is wholly focused on security matters,” Liberman wrote.

Reports that Netanyahu was leaning toward keeping Gallant on had been growing in recent days.

Netanyahu fumed at Gallant for the prime-time address he gave last Saturday evening, taking issue both with the content of Gallant’s message, given Netanyahu’s desire to pass legislation radically curbing the High Court of Justice’s power, and with its timing, as the defense minister delivered his speech while Netanyahu was visiting London, and while it was still Shabbat in the UK.

Outgoing defense minister Benny Gantz (left) embraces his successor Yoav Gallant, at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 1, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

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. The network said that a mere apology would not be sufficient for Netanyahu and reported, without elaboration, that Gallant would also have to confirm his loyalty to Netanyahu.

For his part, the defense minister reportedly felt that he had been 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.

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 directly on Gallant’s removal. Channel 13 reported that US officials are privately lobbying Netanyahu to keep Gallant on.

IDF reservists and activists protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, outside the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, March 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 refraining from 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 the advisers who supported the move.

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