Government ignores stark warnings, as IDF faces unprecedented threat to readiness

Overhaul law went through despite IDF appeals; CoS is pleading with protesting reservists to show up; in prospect, more reliance on less-experienced pilots for sensitive missions

Emanuel Fabian

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

File: An Israeli Air Force pilot walks to his F-16 fighter jet during the "Blue Flag" multinational air defense exercise at the Ovda air force base, on October 24, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
File: An Israeli Air Force pilot walks to his F-16 fighter jet during the "Blue Flag" multinational air defense exercise at the Ovda air force base, on October 24, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces believes it is facing an imminent and unprecedented threat to its combat readiness and the unity of its ranks, with thousands of reservists, many in key positions, threatening to end their volunteer duty in protest of the government advancing its controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition appears to be brushing aside numerous warnings by military officials, conveyed publicly and in private meetings.

For several weeks, as the government advanced the first major bill of its judicial overhaul, a tide that rose to more than 10,000 reservists who frequently show up for duty on a voluntary basis said they would no longer do so. The reservists have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become if the government’s overhaul plans are realized.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi has been attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to convince the political echelon to slow the legislation down, as well as convince reservists to walk back their threats.

Amid those threats, the IDF has been frequently updating Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on the military’s readiness, via their respective military secretaries. Halevi met personally with Netanyahu on Monday, after the Knesset gave its final approval to a law that prevents courts from reviewing the “reasonableness” of government and ministerial decisions. A day before the vote on the bill, Halevi issued Netanyahu a “detailed position paper” on the threat to the IDF’s readiness. And shortly before the vote, updated statistics on the protesting reservists were handed to the prime minister, while two senior officers briefed several senior ministers in a last-ditch effort to convince them to halt the legislation.

Halevi has also spoken about the threat to the cohesion of the military on multiple occasions, including at military ceremonies, at a Knesset committee meeting, in a written missive to troops, and most recently in a rare video message.

The IDF relies heavily on volunteering reservists, especially pilots, for its routine activities. Unlike most reservists who are called up for duty with a formal order for several days a year, pilots and other special forces are expected to train and carry out missions more frequently and in a voluntary manner due to the nature of their positions. Defense officials have said pilots could harm their competency by taking breaks from their frequent training exercises, and it would take a significant amount of time to restore their flying abilities. The IAF and other top units also rely on veterans to volunteer and train the newer generation with their expertise.

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, July 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

After the controversial “reasonableness” law passed, at least 830 IAF reservists, including 260 pilots, notified their commanders that they would no longer show up for volunteer duty. Their announcement sent shockwaves through the military, which will likely have to adapt its operations to the prospect of many experienced pilots losing their flight capabilities within weeks, possibly permanently.

The IDF may soon have to increase its reliance on less-experienced pilots for its sensitive surveillance missions across the Middle East, regular bombing runs against Iranian entrancement efforts in Syria, and preparations for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, as well as less-experienced training staff to teach the next generation of pilots. Other top units, too, will need to rely on less-experienced troops to carry out sensitive missions.

Halevi attempted to bring the protesting reservists back before it is too late, saying in Tuesday’s video statement: “Even those who made a decision with a heavy heart not to report for duty, the IDF needs you.”

The government has indicated it has no intention of slowing down the legislation despite the reservists’ protests. Members of Netanyahu’s coalition have said they cannot under any circumstances succumb to what they say is blackmail by members of the military, which they warn could create a dangerous precedent.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a pre-Passover toast, with Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi at right, April 4, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Gallant, who is well versed on the threat to the military, has said that it is ”best that I stay at the wheel,” after voting in favor of the first overhaul bill. Gallant in late March publicly warned that the rift over the overhaul was causing divides in the military that posed a tangible threat to Israeli security. In response to that warning, Netanyahu ordered Gallant’s dismissal, a move that sparked intensified national protests, in turn leading Netanyahu to temporarily suspend the legislation for three months and reinstate Gallant.

The IDF in the coming weeks will continue to try to convince reservists to show up for volunteer duty, with hopes that its warnings to Netanyahu and other ministers will cause the government to change course on the overhaul. Should the reservists’ threats expand further, with the judicial overhaul advanced, the IDF will likely eventually have no choice but to declare to the political echelon that it is less capable of carrying out certain missions.

Just as worrying for the military is the long-term damage to the unity of the IDF, with concern about the spread of anti-judicial overhaul protests to members of the standing army. The IDF also fears that some young Israelis may attempt to refuse to draft altogether in protest.

The IDF says that with hundreds of experienced pilots and thousands of other key reservists gone, harm to its “competence,” or readiness, may be felt within weeks, forcing it to adjust its long-term planning in an attempt to remain battle-ready. But the damage to the cohesion of the military is already being felt, according to IDF officials, and may take years to repair.

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