Protests erupted across Israel on Sunday evening after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for calling for a halt to a controversial judicial overhaul, warning it was a threat to national security.
The fight against the proposals, which would significantly weaken the powers of the judiciary, has plunged Israel into a deepening political crisis, unnerving investors, alarming its allies and sparking the biggest wave of protests in more than a decade.
More protests erupted after Gallant’s sacking was announced on Sunday, with thousands of Israelis blocking Tel Aviv’s main highway and others clashing with police outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. Israeli media reported that protests were taking place in more than 150 locations.
As anger mounted, a group of universities announced they would go on strike starting Monday morning, and Israel’s consul general in New York resigned in protest.
The outrage sparked divergent reactions within the ruling coalition. One of the main architects of the judicial overhaul said work on part of it would continue on Monday. Three other ministers said they would back Netanyahu if he decided to put the changes on hold.
On Saturday, Gallant became the most senior official in Netanyahu’s hardline government to call for a halt to the overhaul, warning that the polarization it had caused was undermining the military. Thousands of reservists threatened not to show up for the training to protest the plans.
Just 24 hours later, Netanyahu’s office said in a brief statement that it had decided to fire Gallant. Netanyahu then wrote on Twitter: “We must stand firm against anyone who refuses to serve.”
Gallant, a former Israeli army officer, said the country’s security “has always been and always will be my life’s mission.”
Gallant’s decision to break ranks underscored simmering tensions within the coalition over the proposed changes, which will give the government and its allies greater control over the appointment of judges and limit the power of the highest court of justice. nullify the laws.
Supporters say the changes are needed to rein in an activist justice system that has pushed a leftist partisan agenda. But critics see the overhaul as a fundamental threat to Israel’s checks and balances that will weaken minority protections, foster corruption and hurt the economy.
Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, the biggest opposition group, called Gallant’s sacking a “new low” for a “government that harms national security and ignores the warning of all security officials” .
“Netanyahu can fire Gallant, but he can’t fire reality and he can’t fire the people of Israel who resist the madness of the coalition,” he wrote on Twitter.
His criticisms have been echoed by other opposition parties, as well as former security officials. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, the former air force chief, said Netanyahu had “declared civil war”. Asaf Zamir, the consul in New York, said in announcing his resignation that the government overhaul “undermines the very foundation of our democratic system”.
The Biden administration has said it is “deeply concerned” by events in Israel, which highlight the urgent need for compromise, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said.
“We continue to strongly urge the Israeli leadership to find a compromise as soon as possible. We believe this is the best way forward for Israel and all of its citizens,” she said.
However, extremists in Netanyahu’s coalition celebrated. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultra-nationalist national security minister who called for Gallant’s removal after his statement on Saturday, praised Netanyahu.
“Anyone who capitulates to military objectors cannot remain in office for even a moment,” Ben-Gvir said.
Netanyahu said on Thursday that the government would go forward with the overhaul, and bring in the amendment that gives him greater control over judicial appointments in parliament for a final vote this week.
But in a sign of growing unease within the coalition, economy, diaspora and culture ministers all said in the early hours of Monday that they would back Netanyahu if he decided to delay the overhaul.
“Reform is necessary and we will achieve it,” Economy Minister Nir Barkat said in a statement. “But not at the cost of a civil war.”
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington