Massive crowds filled the streets of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv late Sunday night after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister over his opposition to a planned judicial overhaul.
Waving Israeli flags and chanting “democratia,” protestors could be seen blocking streets and bridges, including the Ayalon Highway.
Protesters lit several fires on the main highway in Tel Aviv, their acrid, black smoke billowing into the sky, partly obscuring some of the city’s iconic skyscrapers. Demonstrators also gathered beside the highway, burning scrap metal and wood with almost no police around.
Israel’s political crisis deepened on Sunday when Netanyahu’s office announced the removal of Yoav Gallant in a one-line statement, after he became the first member of the cabinet to call for a pause to controversial plans to overhaul the country’s court system.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to remove Defense Minister Yoav Gallant from his post,” the statement read.
Gallant argued for a halt to the judicial reforms in a speech Saturday night, when Netanyahu was out of the country on an official visit to the United Kingdom. Some military reservists have pledged to pull out of their service in opposition to the plans, which critics say would undermine the independence of the judiciary. Gallant said pressing ahead with the proposals could threaten Israel’s security.
As protesters gathered into the early hours of Monday, three Israeli government ministers – all members of Netanyahu’s Likud party – suggested that Netanyahu should stop the judicial overhaul legislation.
“When the house is on fire, you don’t ask who is right, but pour water and save its occupants,” Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar tweeted. “If the Prime Minister decides to stop the legislation in order to prevent the rift created in the nation, we must support his position.”
And Economy Minister Nir Barkat, a former mayor of Jerusalem, suggested Netanyahu should “stop and recalculate” his overhaul plan, warning it has brought the country to the brink of civil war.
“The reform is necessary and we will do it – but not at the cost of a civil war,” he said.
Protests had thinned out by around 2 a.m. local time in Tel Aviv. CNN’s crew on the ground saw about half a dozen police cars speeding toward where the protesters were and live pictures from the scene showed security forces firing water cannons on protestors still gathered.
A police spokesperson in the city told CNN police are preparing for the dispersal of the protesters from southbound Ayalon near the Hashalom interchange and are calling on protesters to leave the area and evacuate the road.
The comments by the now-fired defense minister Gallant, who is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, upset Israel’s already delicately balanced coalition government. It is unclear whether the plans will be able to go forward. An official in Netanyahu’s office said the Prime Minister had lost confidence in Gallant, adding that he had not cleared the comments in advance and had “thus sabotaged efforts to reach a solution.”
In his speech on Saturday, Gallant said the pause was needed “for the security of Israel,” citing the refusal of some Israel Defense Forces reservists to train in protest at the government plans.
Gallant reiterated that sentiment in a tweet on Sunday after his dismissal: “The security of the State of Israel has always been and will always remain the mission of my life.”
Israel’s former Prime Minister Yair Lapid called Gallant’s dismissal a “new low.” He wrote on Twitter that Netanyahu might be able to fire the minister but “cannot fire the people of Israel who are standing up to the insanity of the coalition.”
He added: “The Prime Minister of Israel is a danger to the security of the State of Israel.”
Former Israeli Defense Minister and opposition lawmaker Benny Gantz tweeted: “We face a clear, immediate and tangible danger to Israel’s security,” before adding that the danger had intensified. “Tonight Netanyahu put politics and himself above security.”
Israel’s Consul General in New York, Asaf Zamir, resigned in response to Netanyahu’s decision to fire Gallant. In his resignation letter, which he posted on Twitter, Zamir called Netanyahu’s move a “dangerous decision” and added that that he had “become increasingly concerned with the policies of the new government, and in particular, the judicial reform it is leading.”
“I believe that this reform undermines the very foundation of our democratic system and threatens the rule of law in our country,” he wrote.
Universities in Israel will go on strike starting Monday, they announced, and the country’s largest labor union and business leaders said they would hold a press conference on Monday morning. The labor union, Histadrut, said its press conference with business leaders scheduled for 11 a.m. (4 a.m. ET) would be dramatic.
Under the proposals, the government would have control over the appointment of judges, and parliament would gain the power to override Supreme Court decisions.
The government argues the changes are essential to rein in the Supreme Court, which they see as insular, elitist, and no longer representative of the Israeli people. Opponents say the plans threaten the foundations of Israeli democracy.
The military reservists’ protest is seen as a particular worry for Israel’s government, as they are regularly called up to train and serve, even in peacetime.
Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir had called on Netanyahu to fire Gallant after his speech on Saturday. “Gallant gave in tonight to blackmail and threats from all those anarchists who call for resistance and use the [Israel Defense Forces] as a bargaining tool,” Gvir tweeted.
“Gallant was elected by the votes of right-wing voters and in practice promotes a left-wing agenda. At the moment of truth he collapsed under the pressure of the media and the protesters. I call on the Prime Minister to fire him immediately.”
Piling further pressure on Netanyahu, Israel’s High Court on Sunday gave him a week to a respond to a petition calling for him to be held in contempt of court.
The legal move by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel comes after the attorney general told Netanyahu he acted illegally and violated a court-imposed conflict of interest order by saying he would personally involve himself in the judicial overhaul.
Part of the bill – which effectively strips the courts of the power to declare a prime minister unfit for office – has already been pushed through.
Critics say Netanyahu is pushing through the changes because of his own ongoing corruption trial; Netanyahu denies this.
Netanyahu himself has given no indication he will back down. In a speech on Thursday he said he would address the concerns of “both sides,” but pledged to continue with the reform plans.
Likud lawmaker Danny Danon said it was too soon to know if there were enough rebels in the party to stop the legislation, telling CNN, “We will only know Monday,” when members of the party meet in the Knesset, or parliament.
Netanyahu and his allies control 64 seats in the 120-seat legislature, so in theory five Likud rebels could deprive the coalition of an absolute majority. But lawmakers can abstain or be absent, bringing down the number of votes a law needs in order to pass.