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Israel“s “fired“ defence chief hangs on as Netanyahu hits pause

2023-03-28T09:32:30Z

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday delayed a decision on bitterly contested plans for a judicial overhaul until next month amid fears that Israel’s worst national crisis in years could fracture his coalition or escalate into violence. Alex Cohen reports.

The Israeli defence chief whose dismissal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought the country’s political crisis to a climax is remaining in office until further notice, aides said on Tuesday, suggesting government indecision on how to proceed.

Beset by unprecedented nationwide protests at his nationalist-religious coalition’s signature plan to overhaul the judiciary, Netanyahu on Monday pressed the pause button and called for compromise talks with the centre-left opposition.

“We are in the midst of a crisis that is endangering the basic unity between us,” he said in a prime-time television address. “This crisis necessitates that we all conduct ourselves responsibly.”

His move stabilised Israel’s shaken economy. But questions remained about Netanyahu’s credibility – including within his own camp – after dissent by some senior Likud party colleagues.

Among these was Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who on Saturday broke rank by openly calling for a halt to the overhaul in the name of preventing anti-reform protests from spreading in the military. A day later, Netanyahu said he was firing Gallant.

Ordinarily, that termination would have gone into effect on Tuesday. But Gallant aides said he never got the notification letter formally required to begin the 48-hour countdown to his removal from office, and was continuing to work indefinitely.

Asked whether Gallant was being kept on or replaced, spokespeople for Netanyahu and Likud had no immediate comment.

An opinion poll by top-rated Channel 12 TV found that 63% of Israelis – and 58% of Likud voters – opposed a Gallant ouster. Similar majorities supported Netanyahu pausing the reforms.

But with 68% of Israelis faulting him for the crisis, Channel 12 found that, were an election held today, Netanyahu and coalition allies would lose. Two of those parties, Religious Zionism and Jewish Power, voiced misgiving at the reform pause.

Jewish Power’s leader, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said Netanyahu had assured him that if compromise talks over the Passover festival and other national holidays in April fail, the coalition would pursue the reforms unilaterally.

In parliament, the coalition on Tuesday tabled for final readings a key bill that would give Netanyahu greater control of the system for selecting judges. A parliamentary spokesperson called this a technicality. Asked how soon the coalition could call a ratification vote, he said: “In theory, the day after.”

There were charges of bad faith from the opposition, which has already named a negotiating team for the compromise talks.

“A gun is being held to our heads,” tweeted former finance minister Avigdor Liberman. He accused Netanyahu of using the pause in the judicial overhaul to deplete the anti-government protests, and urged fellow opposition leaders to withdraw their negotiators until the judges’ bill is withdrawn from the plenum.

Likud has yet to say who would represent the coalition in the talks. There was no immediate word from President Isaac Herzog, the host of the negotiations, on when they might begin.

While Israeli streets were mostly quiet on Tuesday, some of the tens of thousands of Israelis who have held escalating protests against the judicial overhaul said they would return.

“I will continue protesting until these reforms are completely dropped, because this isn’t a set of reforms, this is a coup by the executive,” said Eitan Kahana, a 27-year-old demonstrator in Jerusalem.

Critics say the judicial overhaul threatens the independence of the courts. Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies, said the reforms balance out branches of government.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, amid demonstrations after he dismissed the defence minister as his nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Debris blocks the street during a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s plan for judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2023. REUTERS/Itai Ron

Security forces use a water cannon to disperse the people attending a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s plan for judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2023. REUTERS/Itai Ron

Israeli protesters react as a water cannon is used to disperse the people attending a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s plan for judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2023. REUTERS/Itai Ron

Israeli protesters stand with their arms up as a water cannon is used to disperse the people attending a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s plan for judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2023. REUTERS/Itai Ron NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
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