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Israeli army moves to centre-stage in judicial reform controversy

Jul 26, 2023 | Ran Porat

Silhouette,Of,Soliders,Saluting,Against,The,Sunrise,In,The,Desert

Monash Lens – 25 July 2023

 

Over the weekend, protests in Israel against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul reached boiling point. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in processions, and businesses, medical and workers’ unions jointly threatened to put the Israeli economy and key public services on pause.

Perhaps the most dramatic step was taken by army reservists. On 22 July, some 10,000 of them, including more than 500 pilots and 500 elite intelligence personnel, stated in letters published in the media that they’ll stop volunteering to service in Israel’s defence force (IDF) unless the government halts its judicial reform legislation and reaches a compromise with the opposition about it.

Widespread, very vocal, protests against Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s plan to reduce the power of the Supreme Court have persisted for more than 30 weeks now, but didn’t stop the first element of the reform (about limiting the use of “reasonableness” as a criterion in Supreme Court scrutiny of government decisions) being passed as a law on 24 July.

Yet, the reservists’ refusal to serve represents an unprecedented development, with major implications for the army, Israeli society, and possibly the region.

The background

The founding father of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, championed the new Jewish state as democratic one. He also promoted the concept of Mamlakhtiyuit, a Hebrew word that can be translated roughly as “statism” – meaning actively seeking to put overall state interests above the interests of individuals, parties or factions.

The newly-formed army was to Ben Gurion a vital tool in a melting pot process, in which Jews from around the world would be remoulded into a single nation, and be taught the values of democracy and Mamlakhtiyuit.

True to Ben Gurion’s vision, until recently, in the Israeli psyche, the IDF successfully maintained its important role as the social sphere where young Israelis, men and women, from different geographical, ethnic and religious backgrounds met, mingled and forged a joint Israeli civil society.

Regular reserve duty, which Israeli veterans often perform into their 40s and 50s following their two to three years of mandatory service, was seminal in maintaining these ties.

Reservist refusal, 2023

This year, though, the Israeli army has found itself in unfamiliar terrain, dragged deep into the internal divide threatening to tear Israeli society apart from within.

Leading this process are reservists – citizens who volunteer for periodical military service, sharpening their combat-relevant skills and abilities, and occasionally participating in ongoing warfare and military operations as needed.

These developments are unprecedented in Israeli history, for the following reasons:

1. Scope

Until recently, refusing to serve in the army was a marginal and isolated phenomenon. Only a few youngsters each year choose prison over enlisting in the army out of opposition to Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

In 2005, some individual soldiers and officers ideologically refused to participate in the government’s 2005 disengagement plan in which more than 8000 Jewish Israelis were forcibly evacuated from the Gaza Strip. During the first war in Lebanon (1982), 168 IDF soldiers were jailed after they refused to participate in the Beirut invasion.

But in 2023, the magnitude of the refusal among IDF soldiers protesting against the government’s judicial overhaul steps is estimated to be significantly larger, reaching as noted at least 10,000 (and this number may rise).

In addition, unofficial reports also caution that some rank-and-file soldiers on mandatory service are quietly considering insubordination, and some officers are choosing not to stay in military service, despite lucrative salaries and benefits, because they disapprove of the judicial overhaul.

2. Legitimacy

In the past, army refusal was considered unacceptable, rejected as illegitimate by the Israeli public and its leaders. In 2004, then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon defined army refusal as a “scourge that today puts not only our democracy in real danger, but our cohesion as a people – thus undermining our very existence”, and warned that “refusal is a big first step in the direction of anarchy”.

But today, refusal to serve as reservists and in other forms in protest against the Netanyahu government’s judicial plan is being cheered and encouraged by influential public figures – arguing such actions amount to resisting a “dictatorship in progress”, and are thus a soldier’s moral obligation.

This approach is being led by retired senior IDF officers, including former chiefs of staff Dan Halutz and Ehud Barak, formerly Israel’s PM (1999-2001).

Other former top officials in Israel’s security apparatus, such as heads of Israel’s famed spy agency, the Mossad, Ephraim Halevi and Tamir Pardo, and former heads of the General Security Services (Shabak or Shin Bet), Nadav Argaman and Yuval Diskin, have also praised the reservists’ decision to refuse to serve.

Clarifying just how serious is the danger to the army from this latest development, the current IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, issued a stark warning on 23 July that “If ours is not a strong and unified army, and if the best do not serve in the IDF, we will not be able to continue to exist as a state in the region.”

What are the implications?

IDF’s operational abilities might soon diminish

The reservists are the backbone of the IDF, with their combat experience and maturity, and in sheer numbers. According to estimates, Israel has about 150,000 soldiers in regular and/or mandatory service, while official data indicates there are about 400,000 Israeli army reservists. Moreover, at any given moment, more than 100,000 reservists are on active duty.

The problem is especially significant in regard to air force pilots and crew, who often volunteer for weekly flights to maintain their combat skills. They also participate in Israel’s ongoing battles against Iranian proxies in Syria, and Palestinian terrorist organisations in Gaza, and even the West Bank.

Air force commander Tomar Bar warned on 20 July that reserve pilots refusing to serve “have caused great damage to the cohesion of the force” that may take years to fix.

The army’s readiness for war and combat could be at stake. It’s unclear at what stage the IDF would be prevented from fully carrying out its duties due to the reservists’ protests, but rumours suggest this could eventuate within a few weeks or even days.

Damage to the IDF’s reputation and deterrence

Combined, the IDF’s air force, commando units, cyber warriors and other army units constitute crucial components of Israel’s projected strength as a regional power, and its image of a country that can project power over long distances – specifically against its regional arch nemesis Iran, and Iran’s proxies across the Middle East.

The Jewish state today faces a multi-directional arena of threats – from Gaza, Hezbollah, Syria, Yemen’s Houthis, West Bank terror groups, and a nuclear Iran.

Its enemies have been openly trumpeting the internal dissent and the reservist mutiny as a sign of Israel’s weakness – insisting that they’re signs Israel is imploding as a society.

These forces have already started testing Israel’s power – most notably Hezbollah, which has gradually increased friction and provocation vis-à-vis Israel along its border with Lebanon in recent months. Intelligence officers warn these developments may escalate into war.

“The people’s army” no more

The army is for the first time facing a grassroots movement of Israelis using their dual status as both citizens and soldiers – arguing that the latter cannot exist unless they feel they’re citizens of a liberal, democratic state. This is a “social contract”, claim the protesters, being broken by the judicial reform.

In addition, the IDF, which was the last-standing symbolic “sacred cow” of Israeli unity and internal cohesion, now houses supporters and opponents of the government’s proposed legal changes serving shoulder-to-shoulder. Hence, it’s divided internally, with soldiers strongly affiliated with both camps.

High-ranking IDF commanders are also worried that the judicial changes the government seeks to pass into law would expose them to being prosecuted for their actions as officers when on foreign soil, based on the argument that the Israeli judiciary is no longer democratic.

In the background, the deep, decades-old disagreements surrounding the exemption of ultra-orthodox men from army service has also been in the headlines.

In the current government coalition, ultra-orthodox religious Jewish parties hold considerable political power, and are aggressively pushing to write the exemption permanently into law.

In fact, one of the aims of the judicial overhaul, claim its critics, is to neutralise the Supreme Court’s power to block such a move, as it has done several times in the past.

The counter-response

Calls to serve in the army at all times, especially when Israel is under threat, and to clearly separate the IDF from any controversy emanating from Israel’s divisive political realm, have come not only from supporters of the judicial overhaul proposal, but also from many leaders who argue the reservists’ move is a step too far.

They warn that refusal to serve for any political reason, no matter how well-justified, endangers Israel’s security and threatens to tear apart the Jewish state’s delicate social fabric. Government officials and supporters of the judicial overhaul have used very strong words to vilify and attack the reserve ”refuseniks”.

  1. PM Netanyahu stated that these kind of protests “endangers the security of us all, of every citizen of Israel”, adding that: “When elements in the military try – with threats – to dictate policy to the government, this is unacceptable in any democracy, and if they succeed in dictating their threats, this is the end of genuine democracy.”
  2. Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi told the protesting reservists to “Go to hell”.
  3. Minister of Information Galit Distel Atbaryan labelled them “not patriots… not Zionists […] I despise each and every one of them”.
  4. Close to 100,000 Israelis signed a petition pledging allegiance to Israel as Jewish and democratic, and rejecting any refusal to serve in the army.

A military coup?

In his recent column in Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper, Haaretz, highly-regarded analyst Yossi Melman claimed that recent events in Israel constitute a “Democratic coup d’etat [which] advances a simple yet controversial argument: Sometimes a democracy is established through a military coup”.

Military coups that may fit this model occurred in Turkey in the 1960s and until the 1980s, and the defection of Soviet army soldiers, which overturned the coup attempt against Gorbachev in 1991, and led to the downfall of the USSR.

Yet, what is happening in Israel in 2023 cannot be considered a coup. The army is not using its weapons to change reality, and the actions of the reservists are not aimed at parachuting the generals into power.

On the contrary, the army is reluctantly caught in the middle of the political dogfight, and is begging the citizens and the government to keep politics out of its ranks.

Moreover, the reservists’ protest is just one element of a much wider movement against the judicial reform, which uses many avenues to express its views, such as strikes and demonstrations.

Israeli academic Udi Lebel in 2014 coined the concept of “Military Blackmail”, in which “organisations operate to distribute military refusal in order to pressure decision-makers to change their military policies”.

In a recent interview, Lebel explained the current protests are:

“… the first time that these actions are being threatened not in relation to a military action.”

Instead, this form of resistance, which exists as a result of Israelis’ unique civil identity as civilian-soldiers, is aimed at changing the government’s civil-legal policies. Hence, it may be aptly labelled as “civilian blackmailing using military service” as a tool to apply pressure to decision-makers.

Thus, the Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Amichai Chikli, likened the reservists’ protest to a mafia extortion scheme.

What now?

With the first element of the judicial reform passed as law on 24 July, reservists, the unions and the protesters are facing tough choices on how to proceed.

One option is civilian disobedience, while the protesters already stated they’ll ask the Supreme Court to disqualify the latest bill.

Yet, It’s unclear at this point how many of the 10,000 reservists (and possibly more) will follow through and not serve if called up. In fact, many of them clarified that, in case of real danger or war, they would report promptly for duty and defend their country.

Even if a compromise is achieved in the future, the damage inflicted on the IDF by this episode will take a long time to repair. Inner cohesion and the commitment of Israeli soldiers to serve in the army have been crucial components of the IDF success as the “people’s army”. Both are now in question.

In extreme future scenarios, the military may be thrown yet again into an impossible dilemma. For example, will the army intervene if the government refuses to uphold a Supreme Court decision that disqualifies the judicial overhaul?

Considering the IDF’s deeply ingrained democratic tradition, such a development seems very unlikely, even today. If anything, the reservist refusals seem to be proof of just how strong and genuine overall adherence to democratic values remains within Israeli society.

Dr Ran Porat is an Affiliate Research Associate, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University and a research associate with the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).

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