After his sacking, Israel’s defense minister fell into limbo

JERUSALEM (AP) – Five days ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to sack his defense minister sparked a wave of sackings spontaneous mass protests and a general strike that threatened to paralyze the country and forced the Israeli leader to suspend his divisive plan to overhaul the judicial system.

But Netanyahu has never sent Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant a formal resignation letter, a spokesman for Netanyahu said. From Friday, Gallant – whose Criticism of Netanyahu’s planned changes to the judiciary led to his dismissal – was still in office. Gallant’s staff said everything was normal at the Department of Defense.

As local media peppered this week with reports of Netanyahu debating whether to replace Gallant with supporters of his right-wing Likud party, Gallant remained in limbo – and yet the public face of his ministry.

He welcomed the Azerbaijani foreign minister, toured two military bases and this week attended Tuesday’s security cabinet meeting. On Thursday, Gallant attended a celebration ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover with the director of the Shin Bet security service, his office said and posted a photo of him smiling next to director Ronen Bar.

“We have a duty to calm the mood in Israeli society and maintain an inclusive and unifying discourse,” Gallant said at the holiday toast.

The questions surrounding the fate of Israel’s crucial defense ministry – which maintains Israel’s 55-year military occupation of the West Bank and struggles with threats from Iran, the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon and the militant Hamas rulers in Gaza – mirror the Tensions are reflected, which must be torn apart by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition after one of the most dramatic weeks for Israel in decades. It’s also a leadership test for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, as he rules a deeply polarized country and faces corruption charges.

Netanyahu’s decision to suspend plans to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court in the face of the country’s largest protest movement underscores the complex act of juggling the prime minister must undertake to keep his ruling coalition together, experts say.

On the one hand, Netanyahu must please his far-right and religiously conservative coalition partners — supporters of judicial reform — who catapulted him to power even as he stands trial.

But he must also weigh serious concerns about the plan by Israel’s closest ally, the United States, as well as anger from more moderate politicians and, significantly, dissent within the Israeli military over fears that the national crisis could threaten the country’s security. A growing number of reservists had refused to report for duty in protest at the measures and expressed concerns that the crisis could harm Israel’s military capabilities.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment further on Gallant’s unresolved situation. But the conflicting pressures have led to an impasse over Gallant’s future and his role as defense secretary.

“Netanyahu has extremists around him and they want blood, they want Gallant removed,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

These politicians include far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezazel Smotrich, who gained outsized powers in coalition deals that convinced them to join the government.

But as the first senior Likud official to break ranks over the judiciary overhaul, Gallant has proven to be “someone who cares more about national interests than Netanyahu’s personal interests,” Talshir added.

Officially firing and replacing him could spark a backlash, not only from tens of thousands of Israeli protesters who take to the streets weekly and from Israel’s already unnerved military officials, but also from the Biden administration, she said.

The US, which provides Israel with an annual aid package worth more than $3 billion and diplomatic support in international forums, has raised concerns about Netanyahu’s efforts to transform Israel’s judicial system. President Joe Bidens outspoken criticism of this week’s overhaul – even after Netanyahu’s decision to stop it – led to a rare open dispute between the allies.

“The Biden administration looked to Gallant as someone they could depend on to work with,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The justice plan would give the embattled Netanyahu and his allies the final say in appointing the nation’s judges. It would also give Parliament, controlled by its allies, the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit the Court’s ability to review laws. Critics say the plan would irreparably weaken Israel’s system of checks and balances and push the country toward autocracy.

As Netanyahu met with potential Gallant alternatives such as Economy Minister Nir Barkat this week, the Israeli media reported a barrage of proposals that would allow Gallant to continue — including that he publicly apologise, or remain as defense minister but out of parliament resigns and loses his ability to vote against the overhaul.

But on Friday it appeared Gallant and Netanyahu still hadn’t reached an agreement.

“Underlying all of this is the realization by (Netanyahu) and most of the Likud that dismissing Gallant was a huge mistake,” Yaari said. “Netanyahu is trying to stay afloat, but he can’t really swim.”

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