Netanyahu fires defence minister over call for judicial overhaul to be halted

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has fired his defence minister, a day after he called on the Israeli leader to halt a planned judicial overhaul that has divided the country and prompted growing discontent within the ranks of the military.

The moved signalled that Mr Netanyahu will move ahead this week with the overhaul plan, which has sparked mass protests, angered military and business leaders and raised concerns among Israel’s allies.

Defence minister Yoav Gallant was the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against the plan.

In a brief statement, Mr Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister had dismissed Mr Gallant.

Demonstrators walk with Israel’s national flag next to a banner showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest  in Tel Aviv against plans by his government to overhaul the judicial system
A protest in Tel Aviv against plans by Mr Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system (Oded Balilty/AP)

While several other Likud members had indicated they might follow him, the party closed ranks on Sunday, clearing the way for Mr Gallant’s dismissal.

Galit Distal Atbaryan, Mr Netanyahu’s public diplomacy minister, said that Mr Netanyahu summoned Mr Gallant to his office and told him “that he doesn’t have any faith in him any more and therefore he is fired”.

Mr Gallant tweeted shortly after the announcement that “the security of the state of Israel always was and will always remain my life mission”.

“The prime minister of Israel is a threat to the security of the state of Israel,” Mr Lapid wrote on Twitter.

Avi Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet security agency, is expected to replace him. Mr Dichter had reportedly flirted with joining Mr Gallant but instead announced on Sunday he was backing the prime minister.

Protest organisers called for a spontaneous demonstration outside military headquarters in Tel Aviv in response to Mr Netanyahu’s dismissal of his defence minister.

Mr Netanyahu’s government is pushing ahead for a parliamentary vote this week on a centrepiece of the overhaul — a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments.

It also seeks to pass laws that would grant parliament the authority to override Supreme Court decisions with a basic majority and limit judicial review of laws.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is barred from dealing with his government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

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.

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past three months to demonstrate against the plan.

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 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.

Mr 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,” Mr Gallant said.

Meanwhile, The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which opposes the overhaul, asked the court to force Mr Netanyahu to obey the law and sanction him either with a fine or prison time for not doing so, saying he was not above the law.

“The prime minister will be forced to bow his head before the law and comply with the provisions of the law.”

The prime minister responded saying the appeal should be dismissed and said that the Supreme Court did not have grounds to intervene.

Mr Netanyahu is barred by the country’s attorney general from dealing with his government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary, based on a conflict of interest agreement he is bound to, and which the supreme court acknowledged in a ruling over Mr Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption.

Instead, justice minister Yariv Levin, a close confidant of Mr Netanyahu, is spearheading the overhaul.

But on Thursday, after parliament passed a law making it harder to remove a sitting prime minister, Mr Netanyahu said he was unshackled by the attorney general’s decision and vowed to wade into the crisis and “mend the rift” in the nation.

This declaration prompted the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, to warn that Mr Netanyahu was breaking his conflict of interest agreement by entering the fray.

The fast-paced legal and political developments have catapulted Israel into uncharted territory and a quickly developing constitutional crisis, Guy Lurie, a research fellow at the Jerusalem think tank Israel Democracy Institute, said.

“We are at the start of a constitutional crisis in the sense that there is a disagreement over the source of authority and legitimacy of different governing bodies,” he said.

If Mr Netanyahu continues to intervene in the overhaul as he promised, Ms Baharav-Miara could launch an investigation into whether he violated the conflict of interest agreement, which could lead to additional charges against him, Mr Lurie said. He added that the uncertainty of the events made him unsure of how they were likely to unfold.

It is also unclear how the court, which is at the centre of the divide surrounding the overhaul, will treat the request to sanction Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate affairs involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls.

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