On trip to the US, high-level IDF veterans issue warning against judicial overhaul

Military officers warn Congress members, Jewish community that government policies undermine IDF’s standing as a moral army, open fissures in society, threaten national security

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Col. Joab Rosenberg, left, Brigadier General Roy Riftin, center, and Col. Ophir Bear at the B'nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York City, March 12, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Col. Joab Rosenberg, left, Brigadier General Roy Riftin, center, and Col. Ophir Bear at the B'nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York City, March 12, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — A group of high-level Israel Defense Forces veterans traveled to Washington, DC on Monday to warn Congress members and others against the Israeli government’s plans to diminish the judiciary.

Members of the group said they were perturbed by the government’s plans and were seeking to further pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against his government’s legislative blitz.

The IDF delegation included Col. (Res.) Joab Rosenberg, former deputy head analyst for IDF intelligence; Col. (Res.) Ophir Bear, who piloted F-16 fighter jets for 27 years; and Brig. Gen. (Res.) Roy Riftin, former chief of IDF artillery. They came as private citizens and not on behalf of any organization, and represented over 140 officers who signed onto a letter warning about the “grave implications” of the government’s policies for national security and regional stability.

They are meeting with Jewish community representatives and several members of Congress during the trip. On Sunday, the group attended a demonstration in New York City’s Washington Square Park and spoke to Jewish community members at B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue on the Upper West Side.

The veterans argue that the judicial overhaul, coupled with bellicose statements from coalition lawmakers, threaten Israel’s security by undermining the IDF’s standing as a moral army and opening fissures in society.

The judicial overhaul has seen a growing number of reservists from numerous units warning they will not serve if the coalition proceeds with its plans to shackle the justice system, which opponents say will leave Israel a weakened democracy or even a dictatorship.

“It’s people who are very worried about Israel’s national security,” Bear said. “They’re asking themselves, ‘How am I going to keep contributing to national security when I’m worried about the decision-making processes, about the checks and balances?'”

“When you drop a bomb in the middle of a city, in a highly populated area, it’s a scary thing. You need to be very confident and trustful of the decision-making process that said this is a lawful target, it’s a moral thing to do,” he said to an audience of around 200 at B’nai Jeshurun. “If you’re not fully confident that this is what is happening, it’s a conflict you can’t settle.”

They warned of a “tyranny of the majority,” said the proposals could cause irreversible damage to democracy, could lead to further “harmful legislation” and weaken support for Israel from the US and other western allies. The effects of the legislation were opening a “canyon” between different parts of society in the military, in the streets and online, they said.

Riftin said the court system and democratic institutions were needed to protect the military’s legitimacy and moral authority. Last week, a number of pilot reservists who continue to do active service reportedly expressed fears to Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar that the government’s conduct could expose them to prosecution by global bodies such as the International Criminal Court.

“The Supreme Court is our shield, our shield as an army, as officers, and we act and we do our best to avoid collateral damage,” he said. “Democracy cannot be compromised. There is no more or less democracy. It’s either there are checks and balances in the system or there aren’t.”

Col. (Res.) Ophir Bear, a 27-year Israeli Air Force fighter pilot, speaks against the government’s judicial overhaul plans at a rally in New York City, March 12, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

In addition to the judicial overhaul, the veterans said they were pushed to act by statements from cabinet members, especially Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich saying the IDF should “wipe out” a Palestinian village earlier this month. Smotrich, also a minister in the defense ministry, later walked back the comment.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi also sparked an uproar last week by saying reserves troops who say they may not serve if the government’s plans pass should “go to hell.”

“It’s very clear and it’s true for any army that there are commands that a soldier should not obey,” Rosenberg said. “If I ever got a command to wipe out a Palestinian village, I would never obey it. I think it’s obvious. I think any soldier with a mind should not obey such a thing, not only not obey but actually fight back.”

The veterans also voiced alarm about proposed legislation that would provide immunity for troops from legal repercussions for any acts carried out during operational activity.

“The immunization of soldiers, telling them, ‘You’re not responsible, you can wipe out villages, don’t worry about the consequences,'” Bear said, “I’m very proud of the years of service that I’ve done and my friends have done, but I don’t think it will be the same if this legislation will pass.”

Protesters rally against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul in New York City, March 12, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The group said they were frustrated by the government’s response to letters of concern from reserves officers in recent weeks and had decided to make the trip to the US about a week ago. They aimed to increase American pressure against the overhaul, believing that Netanyahu is sensitive about US support for Israel, even if some of his government’s ministers are not. They said they were not asking for anything concrete from the US, but aimed to raise awareness about the potential dangers of the government’s plans.

They acknowledged some criticism of the approach, especially after unfounded accusations that the US was funding protests in Israel, but said they felt compelled to act.

“You ask yourself, ‘Okay, so what am I going to do?’ Are we waiting for the line to be crossed and then saying, ‘I’m done?'” Bear said. “Or am I saying something beforehand to signal, ‘Listen, we’re going to have a crisis, a national security crisis?’

“At night you’re doing your math on ‘Have I done right or wrong,'” he said. “We want to find ourselves always on the moral, the right, the just side of history.”

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi speaks at a military ceremony for reservist troops at Tel Aviv University, March 12, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF chief Herzi Halevi on Sunday underscored the importance of democracy and societal cooperation for the military.

“The IDF will not be able to act during the disintegration of society. The IDF will not be able to act without the spirit of volunteering of the reservists and their willingness [to serve], which depends on the preservation of the IDF as the people’s army in a democratic Jewish state,” he said.

The military chief cited the IDF’s code of ethics, known as the Spirit of the IDF: “The soldiers of the IDF will act according to the values ​​of the IDF and its orders, while keeping to the laws of the state and human dignity, and respecting the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

The legislative plans by the right-religious government, Israel’s most hardline to date, have sparked mass public protests in Israel for over two months, as well as fierce backlash from opposition politicians and dire warnings from economists, business leaders, legal experts, academics and security officials.

Critics of the government’s divisive judicial overhaul have said the coalition’s proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have called it a much-needed reform to rein in an “activist” court and end what they view as undemocratic de-facto rule by unelected elites.

A number of polls have indicated the legislation is broadly unpopular with the public.

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