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Netanyahu fires defense minister who called for halt to judicial overhaul

Israeli protesters took to the streets March 26 after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister for challenging his judicial overhaul. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)
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JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister on Sunday, just a day after he called on the embattled premier to halt a controversial plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary.

The proposal to remake Israel’s courts has plunged the nation into crisis, spurring protests in major cities in recent weeks. On Sunday, Netanyahu’s decision to remove Yoav Gallant, a fellow Likud party member, prompted at least 150 demonstrations across Israel, according to police.

Crowds gathered around the Knesset building in Jerusalem after police deployed water cannons near Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. Some demonstrators hoisted Israeli flags and shouted, “De-mo-cra-cy!” Others set fire to a major highway.

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A national crisis: Protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judicial system began when it was first announced in January. They have become the largest sustained mass demonstrations in the country’s history and forced Israel to confront long-standing questions over its national character.
Raging protests: View photos from the protests and meet the Israelis who have turned out to object to the right-wing government’s plan, including veteran soldiers from elite combat units.
Israel’s parliamentary system: The Supreme Court is viewed as the sole check on lawmakers and the prime minister. Israel’s high court reviews appeals from lower courts and hears petitions filed against the government and public bodies.
What the judicial overhaul would do: The plan would give the government greater power to choose judges, including those presiding over Netanyahu’s corruption trial. It also would eliminate judicial review of legislation and allow parliament to vote on Supreme Court decisions.
Why it’s divided the country: Supporters of Netanyahu’s coalition argue the court is populated by leftist elites and has oppressed the will of a country that has been pivoting toward the religious and nationalist right. Liberal Israelis consider the Supreme Court the last bastion of their democracy.
What would this do for Netanyahu? Ending judicial oversight would be a major win for Netanyahu’s far-right coalition, whose members have vowed to prioritize Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic one. It would also enable Netanyahu to legally protect allies such as Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.


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“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided, this evening, to dismiss Defense Minister Yoav Gallant,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

Gallant responded on Twitter: “The security of the State of Israel has always been and will always remain the mission of my life.”

Netanyahu’s political touch eludes him as Israel spirals into chaos

Gallant was the first cabinet member to break with Netanyahu over the judicial overhaul, saying in a public address that the controversial plan posed a security threat to Israel. Hundreds of reservists have refused to sign up for duty in protest, and thousands more have threatened to do the same if the bills become law.

In rare public statements, Israel’s military chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, warned that Israel’s relatively small army cannot operate without its reservists. Netanyahu waved aside those concerns and pressed the commanders to crack down on dissenters.

“We must all stand up strongly against those who refuse to serve in the military,” Netanyahu tweeted Sunday night after dismissing Gallant.

On Monday, Netanyahu’s far-right government plans to advance some of the most controversial elements of its legislative blitz, including one bill to allow Knesset members greater leverage in selecting Supreme Court judges and another to allow the return of Aryeh Deri, a Netanyahu ally and the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, whom the Supreme Court ruled was unfit to serve because of a “backlog of criminal convictions.”

It remains unclear whether the protests will change the government’s course. A number of ministers on Sunday indicated they would support Netanyahu if he decided to halt the legislation to help quell the civil unrest.

“The reform of the judicial system is necessary and essential, but when the house is on fire, you don’t ask who is right, but pour water and save its occupants,” Culture Minister Miki Zohar wrote on Twitter. “If the Prime Minister decides to stop the legislation in order to prevent the rift created in the nation, we must support his position.”

“The reform is necessary and we will carry it out,” Economy Minister Nir Barkat said. “But not at the price of civil war.”

A White House official said the United States was “deeply concerned” by the events in Israel. “Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible.”

Netanyahu did not announce a replacement for Gallant, which on Sunday night left the far-right Bezalel Smotrich as the only active minister in the Defense Ministry. Smotrich, a radical settler from the West Bank who in his youth was interrogated by Israel’s security forces on suspicion of involvement in planning a terrorist attack, said this month that Israel should “wipe out” a Palestinian town and later, on a visit to France, that there was “no such thing” as the Palestinian people.

Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right national security minister, another once-fringe settler extremist, has come out in support of the revamping the judiciary, saying that Gallant had “surrendered to the blackmail of the anarchists” — a word he has frequently used to describe the demonstrators.

Ben Gvir has pledged to advance legislation that would cancel Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, in which he has been indicted in three separate cases and faces potential prison time.

Netanyahu has claimed that the judicial overhaul would have no effect on his trial and on Thursday announced that he will become personally involved with its advancement, despite directives from the attorney general to refrain from such a move because of a clear conflict of interest.

The secretive Israeli think tank behind Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have flooded the streets in recent weeks, blocking intercity highways and calling on Netanyahu to stop the move they warn will slide Israel toward a dictatorship. Among the most vocal opponents have been the heads of Israel’s military and security establishment. They say that, absent Supreme Court investigations and advice on international military law, Israeli soldiers could become subject to war crimes charges from international groups.

“We are facing a clear, immediate and tangible danger to Israel’s security,” tweeted Benny Gantz, a member of the opposition and former defense minister. “Tonight Netanyahu put politics and himself above security. … Yoav Gallant put the security of the country above all other interests.”

Former Israeli military chief Gadi Eisenkot told Israel’s Channel 12 News, “Firing Defense Minister Gallant is a disgrace to Netanyahu’s legacy and a dangerous bet on all of our lives.”

Gallant’s ouster quickly accelerated one of the most serious domestic crises in Israel’s history.

In the three months since the new governing coalition announced the surprise plan to remake the courts, the country’s largest and most diverse protest movement exploded, with the growing number of army and air force reservists who are boycotting service beginning to hamper military readiness.

Tech companies and venture capital firms have begun to avoid the “Start-up Nation” amid a warning from the Finance Ministry that the blowback could seriously harm Israel’s economy.

Now the chaos is engulfing the governing coalition on the eve of expected key votes on the judicial overhaul.

Gallant’s firing marks the start of intensive jockeying within the cabinet to pressure defectors. At least one Likud member who was considered a possible opponent of the legislation — Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter — said Sunday he would vote with Netanyahu after all, amid rumors that he was a candidate to replace Gallant as defense minister.

Another emerging holdout, former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, indicated in a radio interview that he was prepared to abstain from the vote rather than support the judicial bills. At least four coalition members would need to vote no or abstain to derail the court changes.

Within hours of Gallant’s firing, Asaf Zamir, Israel’s consul general in New York, tweeted, “I resign.”

Action in parliament reached a fever pitch Sunday. The committee advancing the key piece of legislation — a measure giving the coalition greater say in picking judges — dispensed with hundreds of opposition objections, sometimes allowing only seconds for debate and at times barring opposition lawmakers from the room, according to media reports.

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Rachel Pannett in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.