'I didn't volunteer to serve a dictatorship'

Ex-Shin Bet chief justifies army reservists’ refusal to serve: ‘Overhaul is a coup’

Nadav Argaman says in radio interview that IDF chief and current Shin Bet head should tell Netanyahu: ‘Enough’; right-wing politicians assail ‘brainwashed’ former top official

File: Shin Bet security service head Nadav Argaman at the 8th International UVID Conference at the Avenue Convention Center in Airport City, on November 7, 2019. (Flash90)
File: Shin Bet security service head Nadav Argaman at the 8th International UVID Conference at the Avenue Convention Center in Airport City, on November 7, 2019. (Flash90)

The former head of the Shin Bet security service offered his support Thursday for army reservists who are threatening to stop showing up for duty in protest of the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary, saying the legislation would bring about regime change that nullifies the reservists’ obligations.

Nadav Argaman, who led the internal security service until October 2021, spoke to Army Radio hours after the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved for its final readings in parliament next week a key part of the overhaul — a controversial bill removing the courts’ ability to strike down governmental and ministerial decisions as “unreasonable.”

“This is a regime coup. We all served under different governments… and received different orders; we believed more in some and in less in others; it doesn’t matter. There is a different reality here, regime change is a new reality,” he said.

“Any legislation that does not have a broad consensus will lead the State of Israel to chaos,” Argaman warned. “On Monday, a law is set to pass that I greatly fear will make us a different country. I’m deeply fearful for the independence of the gatekeepers. I am fearful for the State of Israel. I greatly fear that we are on the brink of civil war.”

Coalition lawmakers assailed Argaman, calling him “brainwashed” and claiming he was seeking a military coup.

In addition to months of mass public protests against the judicial overhaul, hundreds of military reservists have announced they will no longer volunteer to carry out their specialized duties — among them air force pilots — if the so-called reasonableness bill is passed. Most Israelis who complete their mandatory military national service are then required to also attend annual reserve duty, but those who served in special units are expected to volunteer to continue carrying out the same duties while in the reserves, a commitment they usually take upon themselves.

“If this terrible and awful legislation is passed, we are a different country, so we don’t have to abide by the ‘contract’ they signed with us, which is based on the agreement that we are a Jewish and democratic state,” Argaman said.

“I am certain,” he added, “that if the legislation passes, there will be those who say, ‘We will not be part of the security force of a dictatorship.’ We’ll see people leaving [the security forces]; we’ll see a fraying.”

Argaman was appointed to head the Shin Bet by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2016 and led the agency for five years.

He blamed Netanyahu for the situation and said that “placing the responsibility on those volunteers, pilots, special units — that is a complete mistake.” Responsibility is “entirely that of the prime minister of Israel, and nobody else.”

“I volunteered for a Jewish and democratic state, not to serve a dictator or a dictatorship,” he said, speaking of his own long service in the security establishment. “I would also send such a letter, the minute the ‘reasonableness’ clause had passed.”

Israeli military reservists sign a declaration of refusal to report for duty to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, July 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Argaman conceded he is worried that refusal to turn up for reserve duty could be used by other groups in the future to pressure the government, but said the current situation justifies the move because of what the coalition is doing.

He said IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Herzi Halevi and the head of the Shin Bet security service Ronen Bar should tell Netanyahu: “Enough.”

Responding to the remarks, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted that Argaman had surrendered to “stupid brainwashing.”

The furor over reservist service, Smotrich wrote, “is a social experiment with many insights into psychology and the human soul — and above all into the need to diversify senior posts in the security system to ensure the future of Israeli democracy.”

MK Zvi Sukkot, a member of Smotrich’s far-right Religious Zionism party, tweeted that Argaman was “threatening a military coup.”

MK Moshe Saada of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party told the Ynet outlet that Argaman was “normalizing refusal to serve and hurting Israeli society; the army should be left out of the conversation.

“In a democratic country those who determine and those who decide are the government, not the army,” he said, and called on Argaman to “conduct himself differently, to use unifying and not divisive discourse.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a Knesset faction meeting of his far-right Religious Zionism party, July 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Yaakov Amidror, who headed the National Security Council from 2011-2013, told Army Radio that Argaman had “crossed every red line.”

Speaking to Ynet as well, Amidror said that “colossal mistakes were made [by the government] regarding the overhaul, but the refusal [to serve] dismantles the infrastructure on which our ability to defend the State of Israel rests.”

“It is not possible to have a democratic country with a situation where a group, no matter how important, decides to dismantle the ability of Israel to defend itself because it does not agree with the government. Argaman and his friends are making a huge mistake, and our enemies across the border see it.”

In March Argaman said he fears that if the judicial overhaul plans are implemented it could cause the “collapse from within” of the country’s security agencies.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee deliberates a bill to severely limit the courts’ use of the reasonableness judicial standard, July 17, 2023. (Danny Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson’s Department)

The second and third readings on the reasonableness bill, an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, will begin on Sunday in the Knesset plenum, and the bill is expected to be approved and passed into law on Monday or Tuesday.

The bill would ban the Supreme Court and lower courts from using the reasonableness standard to review decisions made by the government and cabinet ministers.

Proponents say the bar on the use of the doctrine is needed to halt judicial interference in government decisions, arguing that it amounts to unelected judges substituting the judgment of elected officials for their own.

Opponents argue, however, that it will weaken the court’s ability to review decisions that harm civil rights, and hinder its ability to protect senior civil servants who hold sensitive positions such as the attorney general, police commissioner and others, from dismissal on improper grounds.

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