Hayman: Overhaul push harms IDF, economy, society, US ties

Ex-IDF intel chief: Overhaul damage to Israel’s national security may be irreversible

In interview with Zman Yisrael, Maj. Gen. (res.) Tamir Hayman says he no longer trusts Netanyahu on matters of security, cautions premier may no longer be thinking rationally

File: Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, chief of Military Intelligence, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on June 5, 2019. (Flash90)
File: Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, chief of Military Intelligence, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on June 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Former military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Tamir Hayman says he no longer trusts Benjamin Netanyahu’s judgment on matters of security after the prime minister’s attempt to fire Yoav Gallant as defense minister, and that some of the damage to Israel’s economy and social cohesion, and its ties with the US, inflicted by the government’s currently suspended push to overhaul the judiciary may be irreversible.

In an interview (Hebrew link) with The Times of Israel’s sister site Zman Yisrael, Hayman said he doesn’t have a rational explanation for Netanyahu’s recent behavior. He lamented “uncertainty after uncertainty” in recent weeks as mass demonstrations against the dramatic judicial overhaul planned by Netanyahu’s hardline coalition rocked the country amid intense public criticism, a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, and business leaders, and, crucially, threats by members of the military to skip training or service in protest.

Increasingly, reservist groups, including pilots and special forces officers — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities — had warned that they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which they charge the country will become under the government’s plan. Soldiers have also expressed concern that a lack of international trust in the independence of Israel’s judiciary could expose them to prosecution in international tribunals over actions they were ordered to carry out during service.

The trend sparked deep fears among the security establishment, which warned Netanyahu that the IDF’s operational capacity is at risk.

Netanyahu finally temporarily paused the legislative push late last month after mass protests erupted following his announcement that he would remove Gallant from his position as defense minister. Gallant had called to pause the overhaul and allow for talks on a compromise, warning that growing dissent extending into the military over the government’s proposals presented a tangible national security threat.

Gallant currently remains defense minister, having yet to receive a formal letter of termination, and is leading Israel’s security response to heightened tensions on multiple fronts. Recent days have seen rockets flying in from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria, to which Israel has responded with airstrikes and artillery fire. The country has also been grappling with sky-high tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and a wave of terror attacks that claimed the lives of three people over the weekend.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with OC Central Command Yehuda Fox, at the scene of a terror attack in the Jordan Valley on April 7, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Hayman said he had “no logical explanation” for Gallant’s announced sacking late last month, calling it “not responsible, not smart” and a move that only increases internal instability.

“I do not trust the security judgment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Hayman. Having a defense minister functioning amid uncertainty over his job “does not serve anyone, least of all [the prime minister], and especially in the current security situation.”

“It’s uncertainty after uncertainty after uncertainty. When I try to explain to myself the logic of this conduct, two possibilities come to mind: first, Netanyahu is no longer rational, and then that explains everything. Second, Netanyahu has something so important to advance that he is prepared to swallow everything — including political embarrassment, internal instability, economic crisis, and the deterioration of the security situation. When I look at the judicial revolution, it doesn’t justify the costs,” said Hayman, who served as the head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate from 2018-2021, under previous Netanyahu governments.

Long-term trauma

Over the past few months, said Hayman, multiple cornerstones of Israel’s national security have already been harmed, likely for a long time.

“Internal cohesion, the economy, the relationship with the US and the IDF — regular and reserves — every basic element has been weakened in an extreme way, and I would go so far as to say that it is doubtful some of the damage can be repaired. Nothing can justify this. Therefore, I have no logical explanation. I’m very worried,” said Hayman, currently the director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University.

INSS director Tamir Hayman (R) presents a report on Israel’s security to President Isaac Herzog at his residence in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In January, Hayman presented an 86-page INSS report to President Isaac Herzog warning that the Netanyahu government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary could undermine democracy and set Israel on a collision course with the US and potentially endanger crucial strategic ties with its greatest ally.

The report also warned that increasing polarization in the country could have a substantially detrimental impact on Israel’s security.

Israeli military reservists protest against the plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, as they block the freeway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Feb. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

In his interview with Zman, Hayman warned that the rift within the military caused by the overhaul push was “a trauma that will leave its mark for a long time.”

“I think we are close to the point of no return. The cracks will remain, the internal split and the lack of cohesion within the units,” he added.

“In principle, we did not need the [judicial] reform to understand the depth of the social divide, but what has been created now is irreversible. Even with a compromise, everyone is left with a sense of loss. Those who oppose [the overhaul] will claim that they did not prevent it [from passing] — and those who support it will claim that they did not implement it as they wanted. I don’t see a solution here,” said Hayman.

On a collision course with the US?

The former military chief also warned that ties with the US might move to shaky ground. Although Washington’s commitment to Israel and its security has been solid, transcending administrations, recent events, especially following US President Joe Biden’s strong rebuke of the judicial overhaul, may have Washington questioning the path ahead, Hayman suggested.

“We have recognized for a long time that, in the long term, there is a danger of losing America’s powerful backing. Not necessarily because of things that depend on us, but because of internal American processes. What we have done now is to speed up this process in a very significant way,” he warned.

The shared values between the US and Israel are now in question, said Hayman. “We are going to be more conservative with higher status for religion, while the trends in the US are in the opposite direction. What happened now is a shortening of the re-examination process [of ties with Israel] by a decade. That’s why we see what Biden says about Netanyahu. It will be very difficult to reverse this.”

Late last month, Biden said he hoped Netanyahu would “walk away” from the judicial overhaul legislation, and that he was “very concerned” about the health of Israeli democracy, in the latest and most severe blip in the US-Israel bilateral relationship — which has slowly deteriorated since Netanyahu returned to office three months ago at the head of the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

Left: US President Joe Biden at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, March 28, 2023 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 19, 2023 (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

“They cannot continue down this road. And I’ve sort of made that clear,” Biden said. “Hopefully the prime minister will act… to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”

Biden also gave an emphatic “no” when asked whether he would be inviting Netanyahu to the White House, adding: “Not in the near term.”

Netanyahu responded by saying he appreciates Biden’s friendship and longstanding commitment to Israel but also rebuffed the US president, saying that “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

The White House then offered cautious praise when Netanyahu announced a pause to the legislative push, which would give the coalition almost complete control over all judicial appointments, and radically constrain the High Court. Critics say the legislative package would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character while supporters argue it will restore the “balance” between the branches of government.

And while Netanyahu indicated a “time-out” to the plans, he also said it would last until the Knesset’s next session, beginning April 30 — meaning the pause will mostly take place when the Knesset would be in recess anyway — and would move ahead promptly in the next session.

He stressed the overhaul would end up passing “one way or another,” and the “lost balance” between the branches of government would be restored. “We will not give up on the path for which we were elected,” he has vowed.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

This article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.

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