Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed Defence Minister Yoav Gallant a day after Gallant spoke out against the country’s planned judicial reforms, Netanyahu’s office has said.
Gallant, a senior member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party, became the first to break ranks late on Saturday by calling for the legislation to overhaul Israel’s judicial system to be frozen.
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In a brief statement, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister had dismissed Gallant. Netanyahu later tweeted “we must all stand strong against refusal”.
Gallant tweeted shortly after the announcement that “the security of the state of Israel always was and will always remain my life mission”.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Sunday, blocking a main highway, following the announcement.
The move signalled that Netanyahu will go ahead this week with the overhaul plan, which has sparked mass protests, angered military and business leaders and raised concerns among Israel’s allies.
Netanyahu’s government is pushing ahead for a parliamentary vote this week on a centrepiece of the overhaul – a law that would give the extreme-right governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments.
Gallant had reportedly voiced concerns that the divisions in society were hurting morale in the military and emboldening Israel’s enemies across the region.
“I see how the source of our strength is being eroded,” Gallant said on Saturday.
‘A new low’
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that Gallant’s dismissal was a “new low for the anti-Zionist government that harms national security and ignores warnings of all defence officials”.
“The prime minister of Israel is a threat to the security of the state of Israel,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.
Thousands of Israelis poured into the streets in protest after Netanyahu’s announcement, blocking Tel Aviv’s main artery, transforming the Ayalon highway into a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags. Demonstrations also took place in Jerusalem, Beersheba and Haifa.
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, said that Gallant had not said that he opposed any judicial overhaul, rather “he was simply asking that before the Jewish holidays come, the pause button be hit.
“He was asking that a vote be taken on Independence Day in Israel, which is April 26. So you can see that there is not even room within the cabinet for a discussion, a compromise with the opposition for perhaps a more palatable judicial overhaul that a larger segment of the Knesset [Israeli parliament] would approve of.
“A majority of Israeli society actually oppose, according to recent polls, this particular package of the judicial overhaul.
“We do see that the Knesset is poised to vote on Wednesday for this current package and it appears that Netanyahu and his allies are not interested in waiting any longer than this week,” Ghoneim said.
The planned judicial reforms also seek to pass laws that would grant parliament the authority to override Supreme Court decisions with a basic majority and limit judicial review of laws.
Netanyahu and his allies say the plan will restore a balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.
But critics say the constellation of laws will remove the checks and balances in Israel’s democratic system and concentrate power in the hands of the governing coalition.
Over the last three months, tens of thousands of demonstrators have been taking to the streets joined by military and business leaders, who have spoken out against the proposal.
Leaders of Israel’s vibrant high-tech industry have said the changes will scare away investors; former top security officials have spoken out against the plan; and key allies, including the United States and Germany, have also voiced concerns.
In recent weeks, discontent has even surged from within Israel’s army – the most popular and respected institution among Israel’s Jewish majority. A growing number of Israeli reservists, including fighter pilots, have threatened to withdraw from voluntary duty in the past weeks.
Al Jazeera’s Sara Khairat said the move of dismissal is likely to inflame the opposition even more.
“The majority of those that we’ve spoken to at the protests [in Israel] are concerned about these judicial changes the government is trying to bring because they believe they will affect every sector of society,” Khairat said.
“Just a few days ago, the first vote was brought in where the attorney general wouldn’t be able to remove the prime minister, and this is a person [Netanyahu] who right now is on a corruption trial.
“That is one of the reasons the protesters said the government is quite keen to push these judicial overhauls through, because we have ministers that have convictions of tax fraud, convictions of racism.
“The feeling that a lot of Israelis have is that … the way the government is going about these judiciary changes is undemocratic … they’re not against the changes but the way it’s being done.”
The news comes as an Israeli good governance group on Sunday asked the country’s Supreme Court to punish Netanyahu for allegedly violating a conflict of interest agreement meant to prevent him from dealing with the country’s judiciary while he is on trial for corruption.
The request by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel intensifies a brewing showdown between Netanyahu’s government and the judiciary that it is trying to overhaul.