By Erin Viner
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will delay the dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, announced just over a week ago after the minister called for a halt to the government’s flagship justice overhaul.
“In light of the ongoing security situation, Prime Minister Netanyahu will only (make a decision) regarding the Defense Minister at a later date,” said the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in a statement.
Lieutenant General Gallant was fired in a curt announcement on 26 March after he appealed for a pause of the government’s highly disputed plan, warning that mass public opposition to it had “penetrated the IDF and security agencies,” adversely affecting operational capacity that threatened national security.
Despite Netanyahu’s declaration of Gallant’s dismissal, he never submitted a formal letter mandating finalization of the decision and the Defense Minister has continued his official duties since then.
But with tensions running high during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the start of the Jewish Passover festival tomorrow night, Netanyahu decided to hold off on replacing the former navy admiral until an unspecified time.
The news of Gallant’s abrupt dismissal, during a period of exceptional tension in the West Bank and continuing concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, triggered immediate mass protests, with tens of thousands pouring into the streets after the announcement.
“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,” wrote Opposition leader and National Unity faction Chairman – and Gallant’s immediate predecessor – Benny Gantz on Twitter at the time.
Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Liberman accused Netanyahu “playing ego games” instead of addressing the security situation. “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,” said Liberman, who also served as a Defense Minister, during a previous term by Netanyahu,
Netanyahu has reportedly demanded Gallant, a member of the Prime Minister’s ruling Likud party, offer an apology for his actions. Sources familiar with the matter say that Gallant is willing to express over the timing of his appeal for the judicial delay – although not the crisis itself.
“Of course a mistake to fire Gallant,” commented fellow Likud Member of Knesset David Bitan to the Channel 13 network, adding that the Prime Minister should have instead dismissed whoever advised him to make the decision to do so.
Due to ongoing demonstrations amid mounting international alarm, Netanyahu ultimately relented and suspended the contested reforms to allow for compromise talks with opposition parties.
Political sources say there have been efforts in recent days to end the rift between Netanyahu and Gallant, whose potential firing had also set off alarms within the ruling Likud party, the armed services and among Israel’s Western allies.
Gallant and Netanyahu made a public appearance together last night during a visit to a military base to toast troops for the Passover holiday.
“The most important thing, I’ll say it this way, is to leave politics at the base gate, to come together to defend the strength of Israel,” commented the Israeli Premier.
Marking the first such action in the nation’s history, medical facilities, local and regional councils, universities and other institutions declared a general strike on 27 March alongside the Histadrut Labor Union.
The sectors joined forces in a widescale show of solidarity against the government’s judicial reform plan, in addition to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s firing of Defense Minister Gallant the previous day.
The nation has been gripped by weekly and increasingly raucous nationwide demonstrations when just days after taking office, the Netanyahu coalition introduced a sweeping “reform of governance” to limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench.
Israel’s right-wing 37th government, an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions, asserts it holds the mandate for changes, deemed necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.
Proponents say the plan would rein in Supreme Court overreach and restore balance between the branches of government.
The court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution, and that the government’s overhaul would weaken the courts, endanger civil liberties and harm the economy. The proposal has drawn fierce condemnation from Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials, military reservists and advocacy groups – further broadening already deep political divisions in Israeli society.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges which he denies, has dismissed the protests as refusal by leftist adversaries to accept the results of the 1 November’s election which resulted in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. He has ardently defended the judicial overhaul.
Gallant was the most senior member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party to say he would not back the judicial overhaul, pointing to the impact rising numbers of military reservists refusing duty are also affecting regular forces and undermining national security.
“Citizens of Israel, the security of the State of Israel is my life’s mission. Over the course of my entire adult life, I have dealt with Israel’s security day in and day out. Clothed in the IDF’s uniform, I have risked my life dozens of times for the State of Israel,” Gallant stated at the time, sressing, “And at this time, for the sake of our country, I am willing to take any risk and pay any price.”