Halevi: IDF now has dual mission of ensuring security and keeping army united

‘You are enlisting in a challenging period,’ chief of staff tells new recruits amid unrest over judicial overhaul, as ex-military prosecutors warn of ‘irreversible damage’

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

IDF chief Herzi Halevi speaks to new conscripts at an induction center at the Tel Hashomer base in central Israel, March 26, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF chief Herzi Halevi speaks to new conscripts at an induction center at the Tel Hashomer base in central Israel, March 26, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Military chief Herzi Halevi on Sunday told new recruits they were enlisting at a difficult period marked by external security threats and domestic tensions over the judicial overhaul, and charged them with the dual mission of protecting the country and keeping the army united.

“You are enlisting in a challenging period for security, with many security challenges,” Halevi said at the Israel Defense Forces’ main induction center, noting threats from Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syria, and Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“In this period, service in the IDF carries greater significance. The ‘people’s army’ has a different meaning these days, and each and every one of you is enlisting today in the IDF with a dual mission. On the one hand, protecting the security of the country and on the other, which is no less important, maintaining a united and undivided IDF,” Halevi told the conscripts.

“Our strength is realized when we are together. Only in this way can our nation thrive,” he added.

Halevi’s remarks come as hundreds of military reservists have joined protests in recent weeks against the hardline coalition’s effort to radically restrict the High Court of Justice’s power, declaring that they won’t report for duty if the overhaul passes. A significant portion of the protesting reservists have already stopped reporting for duty, further intensifying the pressure on the government.

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

On Saturday night, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant joined those urging that the legislative process be suspended, the first major sign of dissent from within the ruling coalition.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks in a televised address on March 25, 2023. (Courtesy)

Meanwhile, former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit and hundreds of other ex-military prosecutors reportedly warned the government that its drive to alter the nation’s judiciary will put IDF soldiers at serious risk of being prosecuted abroad.

In a letter sent by the former prosecutors over the weekend, they called on the government to halt the judicial overhaul legislation and hold talks with the opposition.

“We, officers of the Military Advocate General in reserves and retirement, call on the government to stop all moves to weaken the justice system,” the letter read, according to the Walla news site.

The ex-prosecutors said the judicial overhaul, in its current form, would “lead to irreversible damage to the judicial system, whose professionalism and independence are essential to the country’s democratic regime.”

The overhaul would also expose soldiers to “serious risks at foreign and international legal forums, through which the enemies of the state will try to bring about the arrest and imprisonment of army commanders, its soldiers and the various members of the security forces,” the ex-prosecutors said.

Former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), in Tel Aviv, on December 28, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Increasingly, reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have warned 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 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.

Military brass has insisted that the armed services must remain outside any political brawl, but numerous reports have indicated the phenomenon is only growing.

The IDF said Sunday it was delaying a two-day workshop session for members of the General Staff, to allow for the senior officers to discuss the judicial overhaul with their respective units.

“In the coming days, all IDF commanders will hold talks with their subordinates, standing and reserve, following the protests in Israeli society, with the aim of strengthening the cohesion of the IDF and maintaining its competence,” the military said.

The now-delayed two-day session was meant to discuss the IDF’s multi-year plan.

Netanyahu said during a visit to London on Friday that the refusals could put Israel in “terrible danger.”

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges. There have been weekly mass protests for nearly three months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders and more.

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