Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday fired Defence Minister Yoav Galant a day after he broke ranks, citing security concerns in calling for a pause to the government's controversial judicial reforms.
On a day when 200,000 people took to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest the reforms, Galant – who had been a staunch Netanyahu ally – on Saturday said "we must stop the legislative process" for a month in view of its divisiveness.
The plans to hand more control to politicians and diminish the role of the Supreme Court have been questioned by Israel's top allies including the US, while regularly igniting protests in Israel.
"The growing social rift has made its way into the (army) and security agencies," said Galant, who is a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party. "It is a clear, immediate and tangible threat to Israel's security.
"I am committed to Likud values... and placing the state of Israel above all... but major changes on the national level must be made through deliberations and dialogue," he added, also calling for a halt to the protests.
Detractors say the reform project threatens Israel's democracy, but the government argues changes are needed to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.
Netanyahu on Sunday decided to "dismiss Defence Minister Yoav Galant", the prime minister's office said in a brief statement.
In response to the decision, Galant countered on Twitter: "The security of the state of Israel has always been and will always remain the mission of my life."
Galant's call for a halt to the reforms came as lawmakers are due to vote this coming week on a central part of the proposals, which would change the way judges are appointed.
Two other Likud lawmakers had tweeted their support for Galant, raising questions over whether the government could count on a majority if it pushes ahead with a vote.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid responded on Twitter to Galant's dismissal by saying the prime minister could fire Galant, "but he cannot fire reality and cannot fire the people of Israel who are standing up to the insanity of the coalition.
"The prime minister of Israel is a danger to the security of the state of Israel," Lapid added.
Adding to the political uncertainty, Israel's consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir, tendered his resignation Sunday, saying Netanyahu's "dangerous decision" to sack the defence minister convinced him he could "no longer continue representing the government."
"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," Zamir said in a tweet posting his resignation letter.
Galant, a former general, was named to his post in December as part of Netanyahu's coalition with far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies.
He is the first casualty, but other high-level officials have also expressed reservations.
Earlier this month, President Isaac Herzog, who holds a largely ceremonial role, voiced concern over the deepening rift in society and presented a proposed compromise, which the government rejected.
Herzog raised the spectre of "a genuine civil war".
Israel's attorney-general on Friday accused Netanyahu of "illegal" public intervention on the reform programme, after he made a nationwide TV address the previous evening.
Netanyahu is on trial over charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.
In an open letter published by the justice ministry, Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara said the prime minister's televised declaration "and all interventions on your part on the process" of adopting the judicial reforms "is illegal".
In his televised address, the prime minister vowed to "responsibly advance" the reforms and "end the rift" they have caused in the nation.
A parliamentary committee amended the draft law to make it more acceptable to opponents, but the opposition has ruled out backing any part of the reform package until all legislative steps are halted.
Demonstrators have announced a "national paralysis week", including countrywide rallies, protests outside ministers' homes and on Wednesday outside parliament.
In fresh Sunday protests in Tel Aviv, protesters burned tyres, police said. An AFP correspondent noted that Israelis there had taken to the streets, with some setting fires and others blocking the main motorway cutting through the coastal city.
In Jerusalem, protesters gathered outside the prime minister's residence, while other demonstrations took place in the northern city of Haifa, and Beer Sheva in the south, local media reported.
Netanyahu's broadcast gave rise to contempt of court accusations filed with the Supreme Court by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a non-governmental, anti-corruption group.
The NGO's complaint alleges Netanyahu violated an agreement with the court that an accused prime minister does not have the right to act in a matter that could constitute a conflict of interest.