Firing his defense minister, Netanyahu lifts public anger at his rule to new heights

It’s two in the morning, and hundreds of mainly young Israelis, having spent hours chanting and marching through the streets of Jerusalem, are sitting around a bonfire with the Knesset on one side of them and the Prime Minister’s Office on the other.

Benjamin Netanyahu is believed to still be holed up in his office, having reportedly spent the past several hours in various “security and legal” consultations with key ministers and advisers, notably including Justice Minister Yariv Levin. He can probably hear the calls for him to resign, perhaps even the youngsters’ singing that he’s “taken on the wrong generation.”

Five hours ago, he announced that he had fired Yoav Gallant, the defense minister who had privately warned him that his legislation to destroy the independence of the judiciary and curb its powers was starting to pose a direct security threat to Israel. With growing numbers of reservists warning that they would not serve in the army of a country that was no longer democratic, and opposition to Netanyahu’s power-grab starting to spread into the standing army too, Gallant urged Netanyahu on Thursday to freeze the bills and convene the key decision-making security cabinet.

The prime minister did neither, and so, on Saturday night, Gallant made his warnings public, telling the nation in a TV address that “the growing rift in our society is penetrating the IDF and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state.”

Rather than heed Gallant’s warning, Netanyahu doubled down, as he has time and again over the past three months, amid escalating national protests and warnings of catastrophe from economists, bank chiefs, academics, the tech sector, international allies, and almost every past IDF, Shin Bet, and Mossad chief.

In firing Gallant, Netanyahu apparently believed he would deter any further would-be rebels in his Likud party, and thus smooth the path for his remake of Israel’s governance. The first key piece of legislation, giving the coalition almost complete control over judicial appointments, was being readied in the Knesset Constitution Committee for its final readings in the Knesset even as the prime minister announced Gallant’s dismissal.

Far from quelling dissent, however, Netanyahu hugely escalated it. As news broke that Gallant had been booted — a defense minister sacked for the “crime” of doing his job, issuing a warning when he recognized a tangible threat to the security of the state — Israelis from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south took to the streets in fury.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-immigrant absorption minister Yoav Gallant hold a press conference at the Knesset, January 9, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/ Flash90/ File)

And unlike the 12 weeks of rallies and demonstrations that have played out since Levin first unveiled the hard-right coalition’s judicial “reform” package, these were spontaneous protests — an instinctive nationwide response to a prime minister who, for many, had now demonstrated beyond any lingering doubt that the nation’s well-being was less important than his own political and personal interests.

Burning tires on Tel Aviv’s main Ayalon Highway, converging on Netanyahu’s private residence in central Jerusalem, the demonstrators were no longer calling for the removal of Netanyahu’s revolutionary legislative package, but for the removal of Netanyahu.

Demonstrators chant and wave national flags during a rally against the Israeli government’s judicial reforms, outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

As Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and one of his successor’s potent critics, told a TV interviewer, “pausing the overhaul won’t stop the protests. We’ve passed the point of no return.”

Netanyahu has always been a cynically divisive leader, but his assembly after his November 1 election victory of the most extreme coalition in Israeli history — composed of his own increasingly nationalist Likud, two ultra-Orthodox factions, and three far-right Jewish supremacist parties — deeply alienated the half of the electorate that voted for opposition factions. He then appointed leaders of some of those parties to dominant positions in his government, and unleashed Levin on the judiciary.

The premier has also since gone to war against the attorney general, passed a law to try to escape a conflict of interest agreement intended to bar him from dealing with legislation that might affect his ongoing legal trial, and is now advancing legislation that would allow non-transparent donations to finance his legal costs. Levin, meanwhile, declared last week that were the High Court to try to strike down the legislation with which the coalition intends to shackle it, the justices’ ruling would simply be ignored. “We certainly won’t accept it.”

But the termination of Gallant — ditched during Ramadan, with terror threats at a high, Hezbollah watching closely from across the northern border, and Iran closing in on the bomb —  catalyzed a new level of protests on Sunday night, immediate and impassioned.

“People who have risked their lives many times, and lost colleagues, in the service of a democracy are not prepared to do so in the service of a dictatorship or a dictator,” said Barak.

A little after three in the morning on Monday, the patience of the police units on the Ayalon Highway expired, and they waded into the few thousand protesters who were still blocking the road, using no little force to clear it — dashing, for now, the hopes of those who wanted to turn the area into a kind of Israeli Tahrir Square, a center of resistance until Netanyahu has gone.

Back in Jerusalem, Netanyahu had yet to issue any response to the protests. A few of his ministers had called for the overhaul legislation to be temporarily halted; Levin was reported to be threatening to resign if that were to happen. Members of the Knesset Constitution Committee had long since gone home for the night, but its next session was scheduled for 8 a.m. Monday.

Also scheduled, however, were more demonstrations — including outside the Knesset on Monday afternoon.

Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul protest outside of the Knesset, after the Israeli leader fired his defense minister, in Jerusalem, Monday, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

The actions of the Netanyahu government these past three months have shown Israelis how vulnerable their democracy is — with no constitution, no entrenched basic rights, a coalition government determined to neuter the only brake on its own excesses, and a prime minister indifferent to the widening anguish, division, and harm he and his allies are causing.

Despite all the reports in recent weeks of disaffected Israelis looking to abandon a country they’re finding increasingly hard to recognize as their home, Sunday night’s eruption of protest showed an energized citizenry determined to defend its rights and freedoms.

For those who were out on the streets, Netanyahu is the “clear, immediate, and tangible threat” to the nation. And there will be more nights like this, and no prospect of healing Israel’s rifts, so long as the duly elected prime minister remains in power, abusing his office.

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