JERUSALEM — Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets of cities across the country Sunday night in a spontaneous outburst of anger after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly fired his defense minister for challenging the judicial overhaul plan. of the Israeli leader.
Protesters in Tel Aviv blocked a major highway and lit large bonfires, while police clashed with demonstrators who gathered outside Netanyahu’s private home in Jerusalem.
The unrest deepened a months-long crisis over Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the justice system, which has sparked mass protests, alarmed business leaders and former security chiefs and sparked concern in the United States. and other close allies.
Netanyahu’s dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signaled that the prime minister and his allies were moving forward this week with the overhaul plan. Gallant had been the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to oppose it, saying the deep divisions threatened to weaken the military.
But as throngs of protesters filled the streets late into the night, Likud ministers began to show their willingness to hold back. Culture Minister Micky Zohar, a Netanyahu confidant, said the party would back him if he decided to put the judicial overhaul on hold.
Israeli media said the leaders of Netanyahu’s coalition were due to meet on Monday morning. Later in the day, the popular protest movement said it would stage another mass demonstration outside the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem.
In a brief statement, Netanyahu’s office said Sunday night that the prime minister had fired Gallant. Netanyahu then tweeted: “We must all stand strong in the face of denial.”
Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest after Netanyahu’s announcement, blocking Tel Aviv’s main thoroughfare, turning the Ayalon highway into a sea of blue and white Israeli flags and lighting a large fire of joy in the middle of the road.
Demonstrations took place in Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem, where thousands gathered outside Netanyahu’s private residence. Police clashed with protesters and sprayed the crowd with a water cannon. Thousands of people then marched from the residence to the Knesset.
Inon Aizik, 27, said he came to protest outside Netanyahu’s private residence in central Jerusalem because “bad things are happening in this country”. He called the judicial overhaul a “quick legislative blitz”.
Netanyahu’s decision came less than a day after Gallant, a former top general, called for a pause on controversial legislation until after the Independence Day holiday next month, citing unrest in the ranks of the army.
Gallant had expressed concern that divisions in society were hurting army morale and emboldening Israel’s enemies. “I see how the source of our strength is being eroded,” Gallant said.
While several other Likud members had indicated they might follow Gallant, the party quickly closed ranks on Sunday, paving the way for his dismissal.
Galit Distal Atbaryan, Netanyahu’s public diplomacy minister, said Netanyahu called Gallant into his office and told him “he has no confidence in him anymore and is therefore fired.”
Gallant tweeted shortly after the announcement that “the security of the State of Israel has always been and always will be my life mission.”
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said the sacking of Gallant “damages national security and ignores the warnings of all defense officials”.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Assaf Zamir, resigned in protest.
Avi Dichter, former head of the Shin Bet security agency, is expected to replace Gallant. Dichter reportedly flirted with Gallant, but instead announced on Sunday that he was supporting the prime minister.
Netanyahu’s government is pushing for a parliamentary vote this week on a centerpiece of the overhaul – a law that would give the ruling coalition the final say on all judicial appointments. He is also seeking to pass laws that would grant Parliament the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.
Netanyahu and his allies say the plan will restore balance between the judiciary and the executive and curb what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.
But critics say the laws will remove Israel’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the ruling coalition. They also say Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past three months to demonstrate against the plan in the biggest protests in the country’s 75-year history. The State Department has called “completely false” repeated claims by Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, that the US government was funding the protests.
Leaders of Israel’s vibrant high-tech industry said the changes would scare off investors, former top security officials spoke out against the plan and key allies including the US and Germany , expressed their concerns.
In recent weeks, discontent has surged within the Israeli army – the most popular and respected institution of Israel’s Jewish majority. A growing number of Israeli reservists, including fighter pilots, threatened to withdraw from voluntary service if the laws were passed.
The Israeli military is facing an upsurge in fighting in the occupied West Bank, threats from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and fears that sworn enemy Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapons capability.
Manuel Trajtenberg, head of an influential Israeli think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies, said that “Netanyahu can fire his defense minister, he cannot dismiss the warnings he has heard from gallant”.
Meanwhile, 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 bar him from dealing with the country’s judiciary as he is tried for corruption.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a staunch opponent of the overhaul, asked the court to force Netanyahu to obey the law and punish him with either a fine or jail time for failing to do so. ‘have done. He said he was not above the law.
The Prime Minister said the appeal should be dismissed and said the Supreme Court had no grounds to intervene.
The country’s attorney general bars Netanyahu from directly discussing his government’s plan to overhaul the justice system, based on a conflict-of-interest agreement that the Supreme Court recognized in a ruling on the fitness of Netanyahu to serve during his corruption trial. Instead, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a close Netanyahu confidant, is spearheading the overhaul.
But on Thursday, after parliament passed a law making it harder to impeach a sitting prime minister, Netanyahu said he was unhindered by the attorney general’s decision and vowed to wade through the process. crisis and to “repair the rift” in the country. The statement prompted Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to warn that Netanyahu was violating his conflict of interest agreement.
Rapid legal and political developments have catapulted Israel into uncharted territory, said Guy Lurie, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
“We are at the beginning of a constitutional crisis in the sense that there is disagreement over the source of authority and the legitimacy of the various governing bodies,” he said.