Halevi: ‘No place’ for protests in military, enemies see rifts as ‘opportunity’

IDF chief calls for responsible conduct amid warnings from reservists that they won’t serve a non-democratic Israel, says protests within the army inflict a ‘critical wound’

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi seen during a tour on near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, March 16, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi seen during a tour on near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, March 16, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi on Monday issued a public letter addressed to all active and reserve service members, calling for the military to remain outside nationwide protests against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, as the country faces unprecedented threats.

“The place for expressions of protest is the public sphere. They have no place at all in the IDF because here they leave a critical wound,” Halevi wrote, referencing the growing number of reservists who have said they will not show up for service in protest of the legislation.

Halevi said that the country’s enemies interpret divisions in the military as “an opportunity for their plots.” Israel “has never faced such days of external threats combined with an internal storm,” Halevi wrote, and stressed: “This is a time for responsibility.”

“Our enemies must know that we are standing guard and nobody is deserting,” Halevi wrote. “I am responsible for every mission given to you being aimed at defending the security of Israel and its citizens, and being in accordance with IDF values.”

Israel faces several dangers amid the wave of demonstrations, including Iran’s nuclear program, Palestinian terror attacks, and recent tensions with the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

Halevi’s letter came as demonstrations intensified after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant over his calls to halt the legislation. In a speech Saturday night, Gallant said that growing reservist refusals in protest of the government’s proposals presented a national security threat that warrants stopping the overhaul.

Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after the Israeli leader fired his defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

In a brief statement on Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu had decided to transfer Gallant from his post. It was unclear what other position he would be given, if any, but he still would remain a member of Knesset. His likely replacement was seen as Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter.

On Monday evening Netanyahu was expected to announce a pause to legislation to allow an opportunity for talks.

Gallant was still technically defense minister on Monday, as he had still not been given an official letter notifying him of his dismissal, and even then it would take 48 hours before it came into effect. He reportedly told a closed-door meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that the current crisis is seen by Israel’s enemies as an opportunity to attack, citing intelligence.

Increasingly, reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have 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 has sparked deep fears among the security establishment, which has warned Netanyahu that the IDF’s operational capacity is at risk.

A protester hold up a placard bearing portraits of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

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, and business leaders.

In Jerusalem, some 100,000 people rallied outside the Knesset on Monday, while in Tel Aviv a group of demonstrators ran onto the Ayalon Highway, temporarily blocking traffic at Hashalom Interchange. Protests were also held in Haifa and Beersheba.

A right-wing counter-protest later in the day drew several thousand.

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