IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi is reportedly concerned that growing voices among high-ranking reservists against showing up for duty in protest of the government’s plan to remake the judiciary will harm operational activity and military drills.
After at least 250 officers from the Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division signed a public petition on the matter over the past few days, the Walla news site reported Sunday that Halevi is also afraid the current controversy will affect young Israelis’ long-term motivation to join the army.
“At this point, we haven’t encountered actual refusal to arrive for reserve duty, but we are definitely worried about the discourse,” the outlet quoted an unnamed senior official as saying. “How do we deal with this atmosphere? We talk about it, we don’t ignore it. We explain that there is room for disagreement — but not in the ranks of the military.”
In the open letter, published Friday, the reservists called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to halt the proposed judicial legislation immediately and reach a consensus, or risk “the erasure of Israeli democracy.”
Some of the officers who signed the petition also gave individual media interviews, including the two reservists who initiated the letter, assuming it would get several dozen signatures at most.
“This morning it was 250,” Major “Aleph,” only be identified by his rank and the first Hebrew letter of his first name, told the Ynet news site.
“It is impossible to characterize the signatories’ profile,” he said. “I have no idea who of them are rightists or leftists, who lives in the city and who in a kibbutz.”
He said many others would have signed on if they weren’t afraid of the prime minister’s alleged “poison machine,” as rival politicians and other critics have branded intense campaigns by the premier’s loyalists against anyone who criticizes him.
“Many said: ‘I’m afraid to sign.’ Others said: ‘I will sign without my rank or with initials.’ Had the infamous poison machine not existed, many more people would have joined,” said Aleph.
“Our letter creates a huge tide because everyone understands more will join — pilots, the Nahal Brigade, the Mossad, police officers,” he predicted. “It will become that whoever wants to make unilateral decisions will be forced to uphold the [security] apparatus unilaterally. We will definitely not be the useful idiots who let fanatical extremists destroy what was painstakingly built for 75 years. Why do I need to be in the Special Operations Division and not get protection from The Hague? Either everything is done in agreement or nothing happens.”
Major Aleph initiated the letter along with Major “Resh,” — both served for 14 years in the elite division and then served some 15 years as reservists.
“We didn’t believe” the success the initiative achieved, Resh told Ynet. “We aren’t making calculations what impact this will have. We simply believe there are situations in which one must fight — in accordance with the law and not with weapons, of course — because those who remain silent in the face of this madness are irresponsible.
If the overhaul package currently being advanced ends up passing, “we won’t volunteer for a dictatorship,” said Resh. “We won’t be trampled.”
Resh said he was withholding his name not for fear of backlash in Israel, but rather “because I don’t want Iranian intelligence to try to kidnap me.”
Another officer, named as Lieutenant Colonel Aleph, told Ynet that “the justice system gave balance, and if it disappears the torch will be snuffed out and every officer, pilot and combat soldier will be exposed to lawsuits at the Hague court.”
He said he wanted a “complete halt of the legislative process until there is dialogue.” If not, he said, “let the children of [Shas party leader Aryeh] Deri and [Housing Minister Yitzhak] Goldknopf man the Special Operations Division and the Navy.”
Asked what was planned as the next step, he said: “We are intelligence people so we won’t necessarily reveal everything. We need to use all the available means to stop the process.”
The signatories included lieutenant colonels, colonels, brigadier generals and a major general, among dozens of junior officers and sergeants. The major general received a personal call from Halevi and subsequently removed his signature.
“We, the undersigned, have served with great pride in complex key roles for years, on a voluntary basis, in the IDF Special Operations Division, which is one of the most sensitive units in the security system of the State of Israel,” the letter read.
“This is a moment of emergency. If the legislation that aims to turn the judicial system into a political and non-independent branch [of government] continues, i.e. the erasure of Israeli democracy, and if a broad consensus is not reached on the issue, we will not continue to volunteer for reserve service in the Special Operations Division,” the reservists wrote.
“We have served with endless sacrifice this country, which we love so much, but we will not volunteer for reserves in the Special Operations Division when a huge black flag flies over the actions of the government,” the letter read. “The legislation in question will destroy everything we have served and fought for. We will not let that happen.”
Much of the Special Operations Division is classified; however, it is known to conduct undercover intelligence-gathering operations deep in enemy territory, such as the botched nighttime operation in the Gaza Strip in November 2018.
In a speech Thursday, Halevi called on reservist protesters to leave the controversy over the judicial overhaul outside of the army.
“Two reservists can stand on both sides of the dispute… They will come to reserve duty, put on their uniforms, leave the controversy outside and go on a mission side by side, shoulder to shoulder,” Halevi said at a cadets graduation ceremony at the IDF officers school in southern Israel, known as Bahad 1.
Some protesters have already threatened not to show up for reserve duty if the government moves ahead with its overhaul of the judicial system.
The Haaretz daily on Friday said there were “first signs” of reservists weighing refusing to show up for duty, especially among pilots and aircrews in the Israeli Air Force.
“Among the aircrew in the reserves, there is an increasing interest in the possibility of refusing to serve, or of ‘grey refusal’ — avoiding missions or not performing some of them — in protest of the latest political developments,” the report said.
The sweeping reforms, which are being pushed through the Knesset in recent weeks, include the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court; all but eliminating the High Court’s ability to review and strike down legislation; and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.
Critics say the plan will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.
The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as weekly protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies.
Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism, saying that the proposals would strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.
Members of Netanyahu’s coalition have also vowed to pass other controversial bills, some of which relate to the military.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.