Ousted defense minister warns overhaul rift is an opportunity for Israel’s enemies

Gallant sets out concerns in closed meeting of Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, whose chairman Edelstein says: ‘We heard alarming things’

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant (left) and MK Yuli Edelstein arrive for a meeting of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, in the Knesset on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )
Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant (left) and MK Yuli Edelstein arrive for a meeting of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, in the Knesset on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

Ousted Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned on Monday morning in a closed meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel’s security was in danger amid the judicial overhaul legislation.

“According to intelligence reports, there is a clear identification of the situation being an opportunity [for our enemies] to attack Israel,” Gallant was quoted as saying in reports.

“The rift in Israeli society can bring our enemies to a prime opportunity,” he reportedly added. “The Iranians are trying to erode relations between Israel and Arab countries.”

In a statement following the closed meeting, the chairman of the committee, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein said: “We have heard alarming things. This is not the time to replace the defense minister.”

On Sunday evening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Gallant, a day after the Likud member called for pausing the advance of legislation in the government’s judicial overhaul.

Hours before Gallant was fired, a senior defense official speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity said the tensions over the judicial overhaul have led to Israel being viewed “as weak” in the eye of its foes. The official said his view was shared by military chief Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, and Mossad chief David Barnea.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 was seen as Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter.

Gallant was still technically defense minister as of Monday morning, as he had still not been given an official letter notifying him of his dismissal.

Responding to his ouster, Gallant tweeted, “The security of the State of Israel has always been and will always remain my life’s mission.”

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in protest after Gallant’s dismissal was announced, with major demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Beersheba and elsewhere.

Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after the Israeli leader fired his defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 26, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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.

Israeli military reservists carry a stuffed figure on a stretcher during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

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.

Gallant on Saturday night had 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,” he 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.

In a video shared on Instagram after the ousting, Gallant’s mother can be heard telling him: “You have intelligence and courage. I hope everything will be ok.”

Gallant’s stance drew public support from Edelstein and fellow Likud MK 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 convened Monday morning’s 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 for the defense establishment.”

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges.

There have been weekly mass protests for nearly three months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists and business leaders.

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