Hundreds of ex-submariners urge stop to overhaul ‘before we reach the abyss’

Reservists and retired former troops accuse Netanyahu of sowing division; military prosecution officials warn legal shakeup could expose politicians, IDF commanders to ICC lawsuits

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A government handout shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeting sailors at a welcoming ceremony for the new Rahav submarine in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
A government handout shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeting sailors at a welcoming ceremony for the new Rahav submarine in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Reservists and veterans of Israel’s submarine fleet came out strongly against the coalition’s planned judicial overhaul on Tuesday, warning in an open letter that its repercussions could “reach the depths of the sea and damage the critical strength of the submarine fleet.”

The hundreds of submariners who signed the letter, some of whom still serve in the reserves, join the groups of pilots, tankists, special forces and sailors who have penned similar letters in recent weeks.

In the open letter, which was scheduled to be published on Wednesday morning in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, the roughly 300 submariners called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the proposed judicial legislation immediately, accusing him of fomenting animosity and discord in Israeli society.

“Full of fear, we are watching the regime change that you are leading and the division that it is already causing in the nation,” they wrote.

The submariners hinted at the strategic significance of the fleet, which according to foreign reports, is able to carry nuclear missiles and grant Israel a “second strike” capability, meaning the ability to launch atomic weapons even if the homeland is attacked and damaged.

“We submariners are concerned for the future of the fleet that we helped create and built into a force. It is a unit that needs the best youth to continue to volunteer to serve in it, and it requires almost absolute cohesion among its fighters and total faith in the political echelon that is dispatching it. The rifts, the division, and the hatred that we are all witnessing will get worse if the regime change that you are leading is completed. They will fray the best parts of the nation and the military and they are poised to reach the depths of the sea and damage the critical strength of the submarine fleet,” they said.

“We are calling on you, full of pain and with a clear voice: Stop this rapid decline that you are bringing us to before we reach the abyss. The security of Israel is dear to us. Take your hands off Israeli democracy. The damages caused will be devastating and irreversible.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen at a welcoming ceremony for a new submarine, Rahav, at the Israeli navy base in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/File)

Meanwhile, Israeli television reported Tuesday that top military prosecution officials have warned in recent weeks that the judicial shakeup could expose senior IDF commanders as well as senior political figures to criminal proceedings in international courts.

The Kan public broadcaster said a similar warning was issued Tuesday at a closed meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee by legal counsels to Shin Bet and Mossad, the Military Advocate General and senior Justice Ministry officials.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague does not investigate individuals in countries that have strong justice systems and which are seen as capable of investigating themselves. However, it is feared that a view of the Israeli system as being grievously harmed could lead the court to assert jurisdiction and investigate Israeli officials on suspicions of war crimes.

According to the report, the legal officials said they could not point to a specific element in the government’s far-reaching proposals to change the judicial system, but warned of potential operational consequences and said Israeli soldiers could be exposed to international legal actions if the status of the Attorney General’s Office and High Court of Justice are undermined.

Netanyahu’s coalition has prioritized the judicial overhaul, halting most other bills as it puts its focus on passing the various pieces of legislation that make it up, chiefly reforming the Judicial Selection Committee to guarantee absolute control for the ruling coalition and allowing the Knesset to overrule High Court rulings with a bare 61-seat majority. Critics say that along with other planned legislation, these proposals will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting near total, unchecked power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as weekly protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies.

Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism, saying that the proposals would strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, Avi Dichter, seen during a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also Tuesday, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet security service, dismissed a letter of concern from hundreds of former agents who urged him not to back the government’s judicial plans, while warning they threaten Israel’s democracy.

“I have great respect for the people of the Shin Bet,” he said, noting he has indeed received many concerned messages, but stressed that he believes and hopes “that it will be seen eventually by myself and my friends… that the legislative process we began last night is a process to strengthen democracy.”

Dichter, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, added that it is best “not to give too much attention too soon to hysterical claims” about the effects of the bills.

He compared the current atmosphere to that before 1967’s Six Day War, when many people felt the country was doomed.

Dichter asserted that the coalition is candid in its desire to talk and called on opposition leaders to take up the offer in order to reach a compromise — though the coalition has refused President Isaac Herzog’s plea to freeze the legislative process during the talks.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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