The country was up in arms before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, but it was that final act that lit the streets of Israel on fire.
“The breach within the nation has penetrated deep into the IDF and the defense establishment – this is a clear and major threat to the security of Israel… I will not allow this," Gallant said Saturday night, warning of the dangers of the judicial reform crisis and its impact on the IDF's ability to function as waves of reservists announced that they would refuse to report for duty.
Gallant, himself a former general, said that the dangers surrounding Israel are too great and the effect of the judicial reform debate on Israel’s defense establishment could potentially put the country in the line of fire.
“The justice system has to change,” he said. “The relationship between the judiciary, the government and the Knesset requires balance, which will strengthen democracy and public faith.”
Concerns for Israel's security
His warnings plainly came out of concern for Israel's security, echoing those of many former IDF officers who have been participating in the protests against the judicial reform. This was a defense minister doing his job: putting Israel’s security above all else.
Netanyahu ignored the warnings, however, and fired Gallant, saying that he had lost his trust in the defense minister because he had chosen to go "behind the government's back." Gallant, following Netanyahu’s public statement, said that the "security of the State of Israel has always been and will always be my life's mission." Netanyahu’s response was swift and curt: “Everyone must stand up to insubordination." He did not offer a counterargument. He simply labeled Gallant a traitor.
Those who defend Netanyahu's actions, arguing that it is common practice to fire a minister who has expressed public opposition to central policies of the government, overlook the fact that Gallant has fully supported those policies. He simply stated that Israel’s security must come first. Gallant was in an impossible situation, torn between his fellow party members on the one hand and the senior defense officials under his command on the other. In the end, he made the call that we expect of him as the man entrusted with Israel's security.
Beyond the massive demonstrations that erupted after Netanyahu’s announcement, which saw hundreds of thousands of protesters take to the streets across the country, voices across the political spectrum have come out saying that Netanyahu was in the wrong.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, for example, petitioned the High Court of Justice the next day over Gallant’s removal from his post, citing Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara's Friday warning that the prime minister was in violation of his conflict-of-interest agreement. Former Mossad director Tamir Pardo went so far as to say that it was Netanyahu who should have been fired and not Gallant, calling it an “extremely unusual and rare episode of a caliber that I cannot recall anything comparable occurring in the State of Israel.” Even Shas chairman Arye Deri, a Netanyahu ally and direct beneficiary of several of the legislative initiatives of recent months, is said to have pressured him to change his mind and reinstate Gallant.
There is a lesson here. When we elect our leaders, we expect them to put the country's interests above narrow political concerns. Netanyahu, Israel's self-styled "Mr. Security," knows this better than most. We live in a tough neighborhood and the threats facing Israel are numerous and seemingly multiplying by the day. Iran is edging its way out of international isolation; The potential for escalation in the West Bank remains ever-present, as Israelis continue to be targeted in regular shooting attacks; and the confluence of Jewish, Muslim and national holidays in the coming weeks offers ample opportunities for conflagration.
The overwhelming wave of popular discontent that appears to have surprised even Netanyahu, compelling him to change course, sent a clear message: Don’t toy with Israel's security and don’t hold it hostage to political machinations.
We need a steady hand overseeing Israel's defense – now is not the time to change horses in midstream.