Israel's 'fired' defence minister may yet keep his job -sources

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visits Israel
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli defence minister whose dismissal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought the country's constitutional crisis to a boil this week may still keep his job, two sources told Reuters on Thursday.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant came out on Saturday against the pace of the government's hotly contested push to overhaul the judiciary and spurred Netanyahu to announce his dismissal on Sunday, triggering a surge in street protests and foreign alarm.

But aides said Gallant never received a formal dismissal letter from Netanyahu, who has since faced rare public censure from the United States over the justice drive.

Two sources familiar with the situation said lawmaker Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas party in Netanyahu's nationalist-religious coalition government, was working to keep Gallant in office.

His dismissal and the fury it caused underlined the concern among many in Israel that the crisis around the justice overhaul is opening up social divisions, including in the military, that are posing a serious risk to Israel's future.

The government's plan to enable parliament to override Supreme Court decisions and control judicial appointments has triggered some of the biggest protests in Israeli history, with opponents calling the move a threat to democracy.

One of the sources said Deri, a longtime Netanyahu ally, was looking to stabilise the government and calm domestic anger.

The second source said officials in Washington and within the Israeli defence establishment were troubled by Gallant's dismissal and the ensuing upheaval at a particularly sensitive time in the region.

Netanyahu's office declined to comment. Spokespeople for Deri and Gallant could not be reached for comment.

In a sign he was conducting business as usual on Thursday, Gallant's office said he raised a Passover holiday toast with domestic security officials and distributed a photo of himself smiling at the event, where he said Israel's security was at a "complex" point in time.

"As those who have chosen to dedicate their lives to the security of the state, we have a duty to calm emotions in Israeli society and create an inclusive, unifying discourse," Gallant said, according to the statement.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu voiced confidence he would find compromise with the political opposition over the judicial overhaul after the move drew a strong reproach from U.S. President Joe Biden.

Talks between Netanyahu's delegates and the opposition to reach broad agreements over judicial reforms began on Tuesday.

Now in his sixth term, Netanyahu straddles a religious-nationalist coalition whose far-right members have stirred worry in the West for the future of long-stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians and the ability to coordinate strategies on Iran.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams, editing by Mark Heinrich)