days after netanyahu fired him israels defense minister is still on the job

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, was fired on Sunday, setting off unrest, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never formally confirmed his dismissal.

JERUSALEM — He was technically fired on Sunday night, prompting a surge of unrest that a day later led the Israeli government to suspend its deeply contentious judicial overhaul.

Yet on Thursday, Yoav Gallant, the defense minister who was punished for criticizing the changes, was still in his position. Though the government announced his dismissal in a one-line statement on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still has not sent him a letter formally confirming his departure, the Defense Ministry said.

In the meantime, Mr. Gallant has been continuing the job: approving military missions, meeting with officials from Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, inspecting a military dog unit, greeting a visiting Azerbaijani minister — and, on Tuesday, holding a security update with Mr. Netanyahu and other military and intelligence leaders, according to three officials who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.

A spokesman for the prime minister said on Thursday afternoon that no decision had been made on Mr. Gallant’s future, declining to comment further.

Mr. Netanyahu now faces a difficulty of his own making. If he moves ahead with Mr. Gallant’s dismissal, it could provoke further unrest in the streets and among the ranks of the military. But if he lets Mr. Gallant stay, it could cause friction within his coalition.

Israeli protesters in Tel Aviv clashed with a mounted police officer during a demonstration on Monday against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul.Amir Levy/Getty Images

Despite the suspension of the overhaul a day after the firing, and a calming of the debate about it, the odd dynamic in such an important ministry reflects the volatility and unpredictability of the political situation in Israel.

In normal times, the Defense Ministry, which oversees the Israel Defense Forces, its occupation of the West Bank and parts of its relationship with the United States government, would be the most stable and empowered part of the Israeli administration.

But the uncertainty over the ministry’s leadership illustrates the balancing act Mr. Netanyahu is constantly performing as he navigates between the far-right members of his government and the growing protest movement. It also shows how far from standard practice his government has drifted since returning to power last December.

And it comes against a backdrop of growing security threats: a rising Palestinian insurgency in the occupied West Bank, a sharp increase in acts of violence by Jewish settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, fear of an imminent confrontation with armed groups in Gaza, and rising tensions with Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, which has been blamed for a recent bomb attack in northern Israel.

Mr. Gallant’s ambiguous position is just one of several unusual arrangements in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet.

To persuade Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right finance minister, to join the government, Mr. Netanyahu gave him an extra job — as a junior defense minister. To win over another ally, Aryeh Deri, Mr. Netanyahu appointed him to lead both the interior and the health ministries.

And when the Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Deri could not be a minister because of a recent conviction for tax fraud, Mr. Netanyahu fired Mr. Deri, but he appointed only acting ministers in his place. Two months later, no permanent replacements have been named.

All of these irregular arrangements are the result of compromises that Mr. Netanyahu has had to make in order to regain and retain power. To form a slim parliamentary majority after a general election last November, he had to cede more authority to potential allies like Mr. Deri and Mr. Smotrich than most junior coalition partners usually received in previous governments.

Mr. Gallant’s situation is slightly different. Mr. Netanyahu still has a majority in Parliament without his defense minister, but analysts say that Mr. Netanyahu is wary of confirming the dismissal because it could unsettle military leaders, risk another spasm of unrest and further alarm the Biden administration, for whom the defense minister is a key contact.

“It obviously has implications national security implications when the entire chain of command of the I.D.F. is left in the dark as to the status of the man in charge,” said Nimrod Novik, a former senior Israeli official and an analyst for the Israel Policy Forum, a research group.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, is in a difficult position, because confirming the dismissal of Mr. Gallant, seen second from right in January, could provoke further unrest.Pool photo by Maya Alleruzzo

Mr. Gallant, 64, was appointed just over three months ago, beating competition from Mr. Smotrich, a far-right settler in the West Bank with far less military experience. Mr. Gallant is a former general and naval commander, and his appointment had eased fears in Washington that Mr. Netanyahu might appoint an extremist to oversee Israel’s military, which works closely with its American counterpart.

Mr. Gallant was fired after saying that the judicial overhaul posed a threat to national security. Significant numbers of military reservists had declined to report for duty in protest of the measures, threatening Israel’s military capabilities. Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to dismiss him caused unease among both military leaders and in the general public, because it was perceived to be motivated by political considerations rather than security ones.

When Mr. Gallant was fired on Sunday night, the decision immediately prompted spontaneous street demonstrations across the country. Demonstrators blocked several major roads in and around Tel Aviv, setting fires and stopping cars. In Jerusalem, they broke through police lines outside Mr. Netanyahu’s private residence before moving to the nearby Parliament and blocking the road outside it.

Formalizing Mr. Gallant’s dismissal would also risk creating further conflict with President Biden, who issued unusually strong criticism of Mr. Netanyahu’s government this week even after he suspended his judicial plan, which would give the government control of the selection of justices on the Supreme Court and limit its ability to strike down laws passed by Parliament.

Washington sends Israel more than $3 billion in military aid each year and often organizes joint exercises with the Israeli military. Analysts say that officially firing Mr. Gallant would be interpreted as an insult to Washington at a time when Israeli officials are trying to reduce tensions.

“Last Sunday, Gallant articulated a key concern that the Biden administration shares — that ramming through this judicial overhaul presents a serious risk to Israel’s military readiness and national security,” said Daniel B. Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Mr. Gallant’s ambiguous position is one of several unusual arrangements in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet. For example, the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, seen this month, has an extra job as a junior defense minister.Pool photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

The Biden administration “would not be sorry to see him reinstated and probably believe that his presence could continue to constrain the legislation,” Mr. Shapiro added.

The Israeli news media has reported that Mr. Netanyahu is considering whether to replace Mr. Gallant with another moderate member of his coalition, like Nir Barkat, a former mayor of Jerusalem, or Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet, the internal security service. But the reports said he might still keep Mr. Gallant — if Mr. Gallant publicly apologized for speaking out and made a strong statement condemning the reservists’ refusals to serve.

The longer the uncertainty continues, the more unease it is creating among former security officials.

“Make a decision, Mr. Prime Minister,” Tamir Pardo, a former director of the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, said in a speech Wednesday.

“Beyond the fact that this is a fantastic method for torturing the defense minister,” Mr. Pardo added, “it is egregiously damaging to state security.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *