Herzog chides army reservists who protest government by refusing to serve

At ceremony for outstanding reserve army units, president urges military stay out of political debate and warns against jeopardizing security of country

President Isaac Herzog speaks at his official residence in Jerusalem, May 8, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog speaks at his official residence in Jerusalem, May 8, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog chided army reservists who have refused or threatened to refuse to report for duty, as a means of protesting the government’s judicial overhaul plans, urging Monday that the military be kept out of the matter so that it can focus on security and defense.

Protesters have been gathering weekly for nearly six months to express their determined opposition to the overhaul plans, frozen temporarily since late March to allow for compromise talks between the Netanyahu coalition and the opposition. The negotiations are hosted by Herzog’s office.

The demonstrators have included army reservists, among them air force pilots tasked with key military operations, and serving members. They have organized their own protests in recent months and have taken part in the larger protests on Saturday evenings, led by the group Brothers in Arms.

Addressing a ceremony Monday to honor outstanding reserve army units, Herzog stressed that though everyone can express an opinion, once they are in uniform, they must leave their views aside.

“As citizens, reservists have a full right to any opinion and protest like citizens in a healthy democracy,” he said. “As reservists, in uniform, refusal is out of bounds. Israel’s security must not be jeopardized because it is in our soul.”

Herzog lamented the current “polarization and controversy” that “occupy a significant place in almost every area. In these challenging days, in which our enemies are not silent…you remind us again and again, we have one country and we have one army that must remain above all political controversy.”

“Our role as leadership is to protect you from any wicked accusation, and we will continue to do so, with joy and love,” an apparent reference to harsh remarks by coalition members about reservists who have chosen to protest in this way.

The reservists’ protests grew so serious in March that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called to halt the then-fervent push by the Netanyahu coalition to remake the judiciary, a move that got him fired publicly, though it was not implemented in the end. In his public address — over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s head — Gallant warned that concerns in the military and protests also among active-service soldiers were eroding the military’s strength and endangering state security.

In addition, the New York Times cited unnamed officials as saying that IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi had warned government leaders that the army was on the verge of reducing the scope of certain operations, due to a large number of reservists refusing to show up.

Netanyahu eventually ordered the legislative push stopped to launch compromise talks with opposition parties.

These have yet to yield any breakthroughs, and the coalition has faced increased internal pressure to move head with the proposed plans to remake the judiciary by bringing almost all judicial appointments under political control, and curbing the independent powers of the High Court of Justice.

Opposition parties taking part in the negotiations have similarly faced calls to withdraw from them, accusing the coalition of acting in bad faith.

Israelis lift banners and national flags as they protest the hard-right government’s controversial judicial reform plans, in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

On Monday, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, whose party has not participated in the talks, predicted that an agreement could emerge later this week, but vowed to fight it, as it will, he claimed, amount to a capitulation by the opposition.

Speculation about a possible agreement has increased recently, given wrangling over the panel that selects court judges. Alterations to the Judicial Selection Committee are part of the overhaul plan and opposition parties see preventing the government from having control of the panel as a key objective.

While the government says the overhaul is needed to rein in what it sees as an over-intrusive judiciary, critics say it will sap the High Court of its ability to act as a check and balance to parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character.

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