JERUSALEM - Civil unrest erupted in parts of Israel on Sunday night after Prime Minister
fired his defense minister for criticizing the government's divisive judicial reform, prompting protesters to take to the streets, universities closed their doors and union leaders hinted at the imminence of a
Israelis demonstrated after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired a member of his cabinet who had called for a halt to the government's planned judicial reform.
Photo Oren Ziv/Associated Press
Announced in a one-line statement by the prime minister's office,
dismissal intensified an already dramatic internal crisis - one of the most serious in Israeli history - sparked by the government's attempt to give itself greater
over the selection of Supreme Court judges and limiting the court's authority over parliament.
Gallant's ouster sparked chaotic nightly demonstrations in and around Tel Aviv, where protesters blocked a multi-lane highway and torched at least two main roads, and in Jerusalem, where mobs broke through police barriers outside Netanyahu's private residence.
As midnight approached, it also caused the heads of Israel's leading research universities to collectively announce that they were closing their classrooms for the foreseeable future;
in New York resign;
and that the Histadrut, the country's largest workers' union, warned that it might announce a general strike on Monday together with the main companies.
The crisis over the future of the Israeli judiciary had already sparked weeks of protests, tensions with US President
's administration , and unrest in the military.
Now, it has led to a
in the government coalition itself, unusual political coordination by high-level academics, and rare political intervention by trade unionists.
Gallant was sacked after he called on Saturday night for the court legislation to be postponed, warning that it was causing turmoil in the military and was therefore a threat to Israel's
"The division within our society is widening and is penetrating the Israel Defense Forces," Gallant said in a televised address a day before he was fired.
The schisms, he said, have caused "a clear and immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state - I will not be a party to this."
His statement came after a surge in military reservists refusing to do their volunteer duty in protest of judicial reform.
Military leaders had warned that the decline in reservists, who form a key part of the air force's pilot corps, could soon affect the
operational capacity .
Netanyahu did not give a full explanation for his decision to fire Gallant.
But in a briefing with Israeli journalists, his office said Gallant had not done enough to dissuade reservists from refusing to serve, implying that Gallant had helped fuel the security risks he warned about.
"We must all firmly oppose the denials," Netanyahu said later on social media, without elaborating.
Netanyahu's decision seemed a sure sign that the government intends to proceed to a final vote in parliament earlier this week on the first part of his reform proposal:
a law that would give the government
over who sits on the Supreme Court.
The government and its supporters say the change is necessary to make the court more representative of the diversity of Israeli society and to give elected lawmakers primacy over unelected judges.
Critics say the move would give the government
too much power
over the judiciary, removing one of the few checks on government wrongdoing, and could lead to authoritarian rule.
If Netanyahu's goal in firing Gallant was to force the judicial changes, presenting his country with a fait accompli and neutralizing the opposition, it may have backfired on him.
As unruly as some of the protests have been to date, none reached the intensity of those that spontaneously
late on Sunday, just minutes after the prime minister's announcement.
"There comes a time in the history of a people, a person or an organization when you have to stand up and assert yourself," Daniel Chamovitz, president of Ben-Gurion University, one of the universities that announced it would close, said in a telephone interview. its doors on Monday.
"With what has happened in Israel in the last three months, and definitely in the last three hours, we decided that the time had come to stand up."
The protests were so fierce that government lawmakers, who hours earlier had seemed confident they would vote on his changes in the coming days, began to express doubts they would.
"Although judicial reform is essential, the house is burning, the rift in the nation is growing and our job is to stop it," Miki Zohar, a lawmaker from the prime minister's Likud party, said in a television interview early Monday. .
"If Netanyahu makes the decision to postpone a decision until after Independence Day" - at the end of April - Zohar said, "we must all support him. Israel above all else, and our security above all else."
Gallant's firing came at a time of growing military threats to Israel and led opposition leaders and military experts to question whether Netanyahu had put politics above security.
Within the Israel Defense Forces, morale was already plummeting amid unease over the move against the court.
The political crisis occurs against the backdrop of a growing Palestinian insurgency in the occupied West Bank;
the increase in tensions with Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia;
and the fear of an imminent confrontation with Hamas, the Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip.
Gallant's firing also sharpened friction between Netanyahu and the Biden administration, which has been increasingly expressing reservations
the court plan.
"We are deeply concerned by today's events in Israel, which further underscore the urgent need for compromise," Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement issued late evening.
"As the President recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must continue to be, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship."
Gallant, 64, was appointed less than three months ago, rejecting competition from a more extreme coalition member with far less military experience.
His appointment had eased fears in Washington that Netanyahu could appoint a far-right lawmaker to oversee Israel's powerful military, which receives considerable aid and technical assistance from the United States.
Gallant, a former naval commando, had received calls from former military colleagues to speak out against judicial reform.
In recent days, his fellow former naval commandos have staged protests outside his home to pressure him to break ranks.
And reserve pilots sent him text messages every time one decided to suspend service to protest the court plan.
In response to his firing on social media, Gallant said:
"The security of the State of Israel has always been and will continue to be my life's mission."
There was no immediate announcement about his replacement.
His ouster sparked
among opposition lawmakers and military analysts.
Yossi Yehoshua, a military affairs commentator for Yediot Ahronot, a leading centrist newspaper, said on social media that Gallant's removal at a time of such peril for Israel was "a danger to state security that could cost lives."
"There's no other way to say it," Yehoshua said.
Gideon Saar, an opposition lawmaker and former Netanyahu ally, said on social media that the move was "
an act of madness
"There is no precedent in Israeli history for a security minister to have been fired for warning, as required by his position, of a security danger," he said.
"Netanyahu is determined to lead Israel to the abyss."
Israeli Consul General in New York, Asaf Zamir, a former opposition lawmaker, resigned in protest of Gallant's firing.
Two moderate Netanyahu allies announced their support for the law on Sunday, quashing rumors that they were about to break ranks.
But two other coalition members have backed Gallant's request to halt the process.
If a third party follows suit, the government could lose its majority.
If enacted, the law would complete the first step in a plan to
judicial authority that has sparked widespread anger beyond the military, including among investors, influential American Jews and foreign allies of Israel.
Military reservists who have spoken out against the reform cite a number of concerns.
Some are opposed on principle to weakening the judiciary.
But the reservists say they also fear receiving illegal military orders if the Supreme Court lacks the power to properly review government activity.
And they fear being charged in international courts if the Israeli judicial system is perceived as too weak to prosecute the soldiers.
Military leaders have said privately that they are concerned that full-time soldiers will start to resign as well.
On Sunday, the chief of the military staff, Herzi Halevi, ordered all commanders to talk to their subordinates about the need to keep politics out of the army and maintain cohesion, military officials said.
But despite those warnings, coalition lawmakers on the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the parliamentary body tasked with preparing the text of the law, used their majority in the committee on Sunday to rush hundreds of objections raised by opposition legislators.
At least until protests broke out overnight, Netanyahu's government seemed intent on passing the law this week, before parliament took a month-long recess.
That insistence sparked pandemonium in the constitutional committee on Sunday, with Chairman Simcha Rothman often giving panel members just seconds to consider each of the hundreds of opposition objections
voting on them.
Rothman moved so quickly, and the meeting so often turned into an uproar, that lawmakers often found it difficult to follow what was being discussed.
Most of the opposition lawmakers were temporarily ousted by Rothman, accused of disrupting the process.
"Can you behave like a human being for once?"
Karine Elharrar, an opposition lawmaker, told Rothman during an especially acrimonious exchange.
"I can learn from you to behave like a human being," Rothman replied sarcastically.
Earlier, Elharrar had told coalition lawmakers on the committee: "You're like the Minions," referring to the mindless characters in cartoon movies.
"You don't even know what you're voting for," he said.
The review has become a representation of much deeper social disagreements within Israeli society, related to the relationship between religion and state, the future of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and ethnic tensions among Israeli Jews.
Orthodox Jews and settlers claim that the Court has historically acted against their interests and that for too long it has been dominated by secular judges.
Jews of Middle Eastern descent also feel
on the court, which has mostly been made up of judges of European origin.
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c.2023 The New York Times Company
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