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Sacked Israeli defense chief may apologize as Netanyahu meets replacements

Israelis are outraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for speaking up against his judicial reform efforts.
Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant (R) and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin shake hands after delivering a statement to the press at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) headquarters near the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, on March 9, 2023.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is ready to apologize to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his speech on live TV on Saturday, which broke with his boss and called to suspend the government's planned judicial overhaul.

Gallant, Israel's broadcaster KAN reported, is willing to apologize for going against Netanyahu while the latter was in London, and rejecting the judicial overhaul plan. The plan would see Israel's High Court being undermined and would extend more power to elected leaders over the judicial system. 

Gallant's dissent set in motion a series of dramatic events, with Netanyahu firing him one day after, as opponents of the judicial overhaul went out en masse to the streets, protesting the plan and the firing of the defense chief. Washington also applied pressure on Netanyahu to halt the legislative process, and US officials have maintained good relations with Gallant. Faced with unprecedented pressures within Israel and also from abroad, Netanyahu finally caved in on Monday, suspending the judicial overhaul until the summer.

As for Gallant, by Thursday morning the minister had not received a formal letter from Netanyahu announcing that he was fired. On the other hand, Netanyahu has not reversed his decision to sack him. Reports on KAN and Ynet news indicate that Netanyahu had met in recent days with two ministers who could possibly replace the defense minister.

Netanyahu interviewing candidates

The first possible candidate to replace Gallant is Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, who had served in the past as Shin Bet chief. Having the most security experience among Likud parliamentarians, Dichter is considered an obvious choice for the post. The second candidate is Economy Minister Nir Barkat, a high-tech entrepreneur who had previously served as mayor of Jerusalem. As a popular figure in the Likud, Barkat had hoped for a bigger ministerial portfolio after the Nov. 1 elections, namely the Finance Ministry. In the end, the Finance Ministry was given to Religious Zionism party chief Bezalel Smotrich as part of the coalition agreements.

Israeli media reported in recent days that Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has been trying to find a compromise that would keep Gallant in his position. One possibility is an apology by Gallant, as mentioned. Another possibility is for Gallant to resign from his position as Knesset member, keeping only his position as defense minister.

The decision by Netanyahu to fire Gallant was perceived by many in Israel as rash and vindictive. In his address against the judicial overhaul, Gallant expressed concerns that the growing rift within Israeli society — especially the refusal of many army officers and pilots to show up for reserve duty — could harm Israel’s security. Having served as colonel in the Israel Defense Forces, his words by many Israelis as sincere. In addition, Israelis did not understand why Netanyahu chose to fire his defense minister during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, considered an especially security-volatile period in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Another reason for concern was Israel’s relations with the United States. It is no secret that Gallant is considered by Washington as its favorite interlocutor within the far-right/ultra-Orthodox Netanyahu government. As such, firing Gallant could harm Jerusalem’s ties with the White House. Such reasoning puts Barkat in a better position to replace Gallant compared with Dichter. The economy minister is well known in Washington, with good ties with both senior administration officials and with top American finance figures. That being said, tensions between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden have considerably increased in the past two days. Insisting on firing Gallant could backfire at Netanyahu, furtherly damaging his relations with the White House.

Head of the National Unity opposition party Benny Gantz called on Netanyahu on Thursday to keep Gallant in his position, for the sake of Israel’s security. Gantz, who had served himself in this position, called on all coalition members to refuse any such offer by Netanyahu to take up this post.

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