US 'strongly urges' Israel compromise after Netanyahu fires Defence Minister amid protests

Crisis escalates as Yoav Gallant is dismissed for objecting to judicial reforms

Protesters gather after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. Reuters
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The White House has "strongly urged" leaders in Israel to find compromise quickly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired the Defence Minister, triggering mass protests.

Thousands of people took to Israel's streets on Sunday in protest after Mr Netanyahu dismissed Defence Minister Yoav Gallant a day after he broke ranks and urged the government to halt plans to overhaul the judicial system.

"We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible. We believe that is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said.

About three months since taking office, Mr Netanyahu's nationalist-religious coalition has been plunged into crisis over the bitter divisions exposed by its flagship judicial overhaul plans.

The overhaul package would tighten political control over judicial appointments, handing the executive wider freedom to name judges to the Supreme Court.

Asaf Zamir, Israel's consul general in New York, tendered his resignation on Sunday, citing Mr Netanyahu's "dangerous decision".

"Following today's developments, it is now time for me to join the fight for Israel's future to ensure it remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world," Mr Zamir said on Twitter.

"As the president recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship," Ms Watson said.

"Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support."

As news spread of the dismissal, tens of thousands of protesters, many waving blue and white Israeli flags, took to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Crowds gathered outside Mr Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, at one point breaching a security cordon.

"State security cannot be a card in the political game. Netanyahu crossed a red line tonight," opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz said in a statement.

They called on members of Mr Netanyahu's Likud party not to have a hand in "the crushing of national security".

Mr Netanyahu was poised to ratify legislation that would tighten political control over judicial appointments.

That bill, and others that would limit Supreme Court powers to rule against government policy, have led to warnings at home and abroad over Israel's democracy.

Mr Gallant on Saturday became the most senior member of Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party to say he would not support the judicial overhaul.

He said protests that included growing numbers of military reservists were also undermining national security.

"At this time, for the sake of our country, I am willing to take any risk and pay any price," Mr Gallant said in his televised address.

The response came on Sunday night.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided this evening to dismiss Defence Minister Yoav Gallant," Mr Netanyahu's office said. It did not name a replacement or give any other details.

Shortly after his dismissal, Mr Gallant, 64, wrote on Twitter: "The state of Israel’s security has always been and will always be my life’s mission.”

Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges that he denies, says the judicial overhaul will balance the branches of government.

Critics, from business leaders to former military officers and opposition parties, say the overhaul will weaken Israel's democracy, hurt the economy and hand uncontrolled powers to the government.

A key bill effectively giving Mr Netanyahu's coalition more control over the appointment of judges is expected to be brought for ratification this week in the Knesset, where he and his allies hold 64 of 120 seats.

But how, or even whether, that unscheduled vote will proceed has been thrown into question by Likud dissenters.

Updated: March 27, 2023, 9:47 AM