IDF chief: Overhaul debate splitting military; Israel’s existence could be imperiled

Halevi says army ‘cohesion harmed’ amid political turmoil; urges reservists to return to service; says Israel cannot ‘continue to exist as a state’ without strong, unified military

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

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi warned Sunday that the unity of the Israel Defense Forces had been “dangerously” harmed, as thousands of reservists vowed to end their volunteer duty in protest of the government’s moves to overhaul the judiciary.

He urged these reservists to reconsider, saying, “I call on them to return to service.”

And he warned that Israel would be in existential peril without a unified IDF including the “best” soldiers.

“If ours is not a strong and unified army, and if the best do not serve in the IDF, we will not be able to continue to exist as a state in the region,” said Halevi.

“We have acted to keep [the IDF] out of the debate, but due to its intensity in Israeli society, we were pulled into it, and the cohesion [of the military] has been harmed,” the chief of staff wrote in a (Hebrew) letter to troops. “It is our duty to prevent these cracks from widening.”

Halevi said he would not discuss the debate over the overhaul, but noted that the IDF’s role is to “protect the country, including to allow debate in safe conditions.”

Otherwise, “a ground troop may mistakenly think a pilot in the Air Force won’t assist them because of the debate; and a pilot may mistakenly think they do not need to prepare and remain battle-ready, when in reality, they may be needed soon,” Halevi warned.

Halevi was apparently referring in part to a staged video shared last week on social media — including by government ministers — depicting Israeli Air Force pilots refusing to help ground troops attacked by enemy forces due to the formers’ perceived support for the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system. The IDF slammed the video at the time, saying it aims to cause “internal incitement” within the Israel Defense Forces.

IDF reserve soldiers sign a declaration intending to end their volunteer reserve duty, outside the IDF headquarters and near the Tel Aviv Museum in Tel Aviv, July 19, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Halevi assured troops it was not too late to fix the harm caused to the IDF’s unity by the debate surrounding the overhaul.

“Even if there is a debate, cohesion is of utmost importance,” he urged.

Halevi said serving in the IDF is “an obligation which is a great privilege,” for standing and reserve forces.

“None of the service members have the right to say that they are not serving anymore, and they have no right to not show up for duty or refuse an order,” he said.

Halevi said the IDF “is strong because of its people… We have no other nation and we have no other IDF.”

The IDF commander was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to review the impact that the reservists’ refusal to serve is having on the armed forces, according to Hebrew media reports. However, Netanyahu received a heart pacemaker on Sunday and his schedule has been disrupted as he recovers from the procedure.

Last week Halevi told a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that reservists’ refusal to volunteer for special duties as a form of protest was harming the IDF.

Most Israelis who complete their mandatory military national service are then required to also attend annual reserve duty, but those who served in special units, and pilots, are expected to volunteer to continue carrying out the same duties while in the reserves, a commitment they usually take upon themselves.

Members of the ‘Brothers in Arms’ reservists protest group hold a press conference in Herzliya, July 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On Saturday, a large anti-protest group announced that 10,000 reservists would suspend their volunteer service if the judicial plan moves ahead. Hundreds of pilots are among more than 1,000 air force personnel who on Friday announced a similar intention.

Protests against the judicial overhaul have roiled the IDF for months, with the threats ramping up as the government pushes a bill barring judges from the use of the so-called “reasonableness” test for government and ministerial decisions, part of the coalition’s controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary. The bill is to be debated in the Knesset on Sunday and is then expected to pass its final readings into law in the following days.

The threats have simultaneously created more pressure on the government to halt the controversial legislation, while also increasing the coalition’s determination, with members of Netanyahu’s government saying they cannot under any circumstances succumb to what they say is blackmail by members of the military, which they warn could create a dangerous precedent.

Reservists, especially members of the IAF, are a key part of the army’s routine activities. Defense officials have said pilots could harm their competency by taking breaks from their frequent training exercises, and it would take a significant amount of time to restore their flying abilities.

The military has said that it would discipline or potentially dismiss active-duty soldiers who refuse to show up for duty when ordered to but stressed that no action would be taken against reservists who only threaten not to show up.

It is unclear what measures would be taken against reservists who do not show up for voluntary duty. The IDF said it would handle each case individually, including possible suspension, dismissal, or jail sentences.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: