JERUSALEM—Tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets of cities across the country Sunday night in a spontaneous outburst of anger after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly fired his defense minister for challenging the Israeli leader’s judicial overhaul plan.
Protesters in Tel Aviv blocked a main highway and lit large bonfires, while police scuffled with protesters who gathered outside Netanyahu’s private home in Jerusalem.
The unrest deepened a monthslong crisis over Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary, which has sparked mass protests, alarmed business leaders and former security chiefs and drawn concern from the United States and other close allies.
Netanyahu’s dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signaled that the prime minister and his allies will barrel ahead this week with the overhaul plan. Gallant had been the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against it, saying the deep divisions were threatening to weaken the military.
But as droves of protesters flooded the streets late into the night, Likud ministers began indicating willingness to hit the brakes. Culture Minister Micky Zohar, a Netanyahu confidant, said the party would support him if he decided to pause the judicial overhaul.
Israeli media said leaders in Netanyahu’s coalition were to meet on Monday morning. Later in the day, the grassroots protest movement said it would hold another mass demonstration outside the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem.
In a brief statement, Netanyahu’s office said late Sunday the prime minister had dismissed Gallant. Netanyahu later tweeted, “We must all stand strong against refusal.”
Tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets in protest after Netanyahu’s announcement, blocking Tel Aviv’s main artery, transforming the Ayalon highway into a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags and lighting a large bonfire in the middle of the road.
Demonstrations took place in Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem, where thousands of people gathered outside Netanyahu’s private residence. Police scuffled with protesters and sprayed the crowd with a water cannon. Thousands then marched from the residence to the Knesset.
Inon Aizik, 27, said he came to demonstrate outside Netanyahu’s private residence in central Jerusalem because “bad things are happening in this country.” He called the judicial overhaul “a quick legislative blitz.”
Netanyahu’s decision came less than a day after Gallant, a former senior general, called for a pause in the controversial legislation until after next month’s Independence Day holidays, citing the turmoil in the ranks of the military.
Gallant had voiced concerns that the divisions in society were hurting morale in the military and emboldening Israel’s enemies. “I see how the source of our strength is being eroded,” Gallant said.
While several other Likud members had indicated they might follow Gallant, the party quickly closed ranks Sunday, clearing the way for his dismissal.
Galit Distal Atbaryan, Netanyahu’s public diplomacy minister, said Netanyahu summoned Gallant to his office and told him “that he doesn’t have any faith in him anymore and therefore he is fired.”
Gallant tweeted shortly after the announcement that “the security of the state of Israel always was and will always remain my life mission.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Gallant’s dismissal “harms national security and ignores warnings of all defense officials.”
Israel’s consul general in New York City, Assaf Zamir, resigned in protest.
Avi Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet security agency, is expected to replace Gallant. Dichter had reportedly flirted with joining Gallant but instead announced Sunday he was backing the prime minister.
Netanyahu’s government is pushing ahead for a parliamentary vote this week on a centerpiece of the overhaul—a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments. It also seeks to pass laws that would grant parliament the authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.
Netanyahu and his allies say the plan will restore a balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.
But critics say the laws will remove Israel’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the governing coalition. They also say that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past three months to demonstrate against the plan in the largest demonstrations in the country’s 75-year history. The State Department dismissed as “completely false” claims repeated by Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, that the US government was financing these protests.
Leaders of Israel’s vibrant high-tech industry have said the changes will scare away investors, former top security officials have spoken out against the plan and key allies, including the United States and Germany, have voiced concerns.
In recent weeks, discontent has surged from within Israel’s army—the most popular and respected institution among Israel’s Jewish majority. A growing number of Israeli reservists, including fighter pilots, have threatened to withdraw from voluntary duty if the laws are passed.
Israel’s military is facing an increase in fighting in the occupied West Bank, threats from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group and concerns that archenemy Iran is close to developing a nuclear-weapons capability.
Manuel Trajtenberg, head of an influential Israeli think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies, said that “Netanyahu can dismiss his defense minister, he cannot dismiss the warnings he heard from Gallant.”
Meanwhile, an Israeli good governance group asked the country’s Supreme Court on Sunday to punish Netanyahu for allegedly violating a conflict of interest agreement meant to prevent him from dealing with the country’s judiciary while he is on trial for corruption.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a fierce opponent of the overhaul, asked the court to force Netanyahu to obey the law and sanction him either with a fine or prison time for not doing so. It said he was not above the law.
The prime minister said the appeal should be dismissed and said that the Supreme Court didn’t have grounds to intervene.
Netanyahu is barred by the country’s attorney general from directly dealing with his government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary, based on a conflict of interest agreement that the Supreme Court acknowledged in a ruling over Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption. Instead, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a close confidant of Netanyahu, is spearheading the overhaul.
The Associated Press journalist Tia Goldenberg contributed from Tel Aviv
But on Thursday, after Parliament passed a law making it harder to remove a sitting prime minister, Netanyahu said he was unshackled from the attorney general’s decision and vowed to wade into the crisis and “mend the rift” in the nation. That declaration prompted the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, to warn that Netanyahu was breaking his conflict of interest agreement.
The fast-paced legal and political developments have catapulted Israel into uncharted territory, said Guy Lurie, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
“We are at the start of a constitutional crisis in the sense that there is a disagreement over the source of authority and legitimacy of different governing bodies,” he said.
The Associated Press journalist Tia Goldenberg contributed from Tel Aviv