Yisrael Beytenu chief Liberman calls on Halevi to resign

IDF chief: Reservists’ refusal to serve harms military, national security

Halevi says goal is to maintain high level of competence and cohesion within army, amid national tensions over judicial overhaul; Gallant pleads with reservists not to refuse duty

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)

Speaking at a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on Tuesday morning, military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said calls by reservists to refuse to serve in protest of the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system cause harm to the Israel Defense Forces.

“Anyone who calls for not showing up [for duty] harms the IDF and harms the security of the state,” IDF Chief of Staff Halevi said.

“Our goal these days is to combine competence and cohesion” in the military, Halevi added.

“In the various arenas, both far and near, the IDF is required to be vigilant and ready to strengthen deterrence. The current security challenges require us to be highly prepared in terms of competence and cohesion, even when there is tension between them. The goal is to keep them together,” he said.

After his opening remarks, Halevi gave a classified briefing to the members of the committee, largely focused on the IDF’s multi-year plan.

In recent weeks, protests against the judicial overhaul have rippled through the IDF, with reservists from dozens of units joining in threats to cease their voluntary service. According to a list published Sunday, nearly 4,000 reservists have signed letters threatening to not show up for voluntary duty in protest of the planned changes to the judiciary.

On Monday night, 160 reservists of the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit added their names to the growing list of reservists announcing their intention to suspend their volunteer reserve duty, according to the Ynet news site.

Members of the Brothers in Arms protest group demonstrate against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the home of Speaker of the Knesset Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv, on June 6, 2023.(Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

The chief of staff’s remarks Tuesday were not his first against threats by reservists.

At a ceremony last week, Halevi said reservists “don’t have the right” to refuse to show up for duty. And in an apparent media leak Friday, Halevi reportedly told reservists during a drill that “those who call to not show up for reserves as a protest are directly harming the IDF. If we don’t train today, the competence of the army will suffer, and when it is necessary to activate you, we will be less prepared.”

Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday that Halevi should resign if he is unable to keep up the military’s competence.

“The chief of staff’s role always was to provide security and maintain the IDF’s competence. In today’s circumstances, this is impossible. Therefore the chief of staff must resign, he has no other choice,” Liberman said at a conference hosted by the Calcalist financial daily.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference hosted by the Calcalist financial daily, July 18, 2023. (Courtesy)

Later Tuesday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the defense establishment needed reservists in order to deal with threats facing Israel.

“We are allowed to disagree, we are allowed to debate and discuss, we are allowed to protest, but we are not allowed to harm, in the name of one political opinion or another, the IDF,” he said in an appeal to reservists, during an event commemorating 75 years since the sailing of the immigrant ship Exodus.

“As someone who spent most of his adult years in command of troops from all segments of Israeli society, and as someone who knows the current [security] situation, I can say clearly that in the effort to protect the security of the state and in the face of the threats facing us, we need all the soldiers and all the commanders,” Gallant said.

“Just as the company commander and the battalion commander need all the soldiers in the company and battalion, so do I, as the defense minister of Israel, need the entire IDF, the entire Shin Bet, the entire Mossad, all the people they have, from all parts of the public, in order to succeed in the complex mission of protecting the State of Israel and the lives of its citizens,” he continued.

Gallant said the military must be kept “united” and not allow “extreme statements from any side” to harm the IDF.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks at an event at the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum in Haifa, July 18, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Sunday, Gallant reportedly held an emergency meeting with Halevi and other top officers to discuss the possible fallout if military reservists — particularly pilots — stop showing up for volunteer duty in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul.

Unsourced details of the meeting were published by all Hebrew-language media outlets as Israel’s main evening news programs were broadcast, in what appeared to be a coordinated leak from either the military or Gallant’s office.

The reports said Gallant and Halevi were considering speaking in the coming days with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to relay the concerns over the potential negative impact on military readiness.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) meets with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 16, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Members of the IDF General Staff, a forum of senior commanders responsible for the various branches and departments of the military, reportedly warned Gallant of the growing list of reservists who have threatened to suspend their volunteer duty, which could impact the military’s readiness.

The IDF, according to the unsourced reports on Sunday, had not detected any immediate harm to the army’s readiness, but was regularly holding assessments to determine whether such a point is nearing.

The reports said that while the readiness of the IDF was not immediately impacted, there were signs of harm to the “internal cohesion” of the military, as more and more open letters against the overhaul were published.

Unlike most reservists who are called up for duty with a formal order from the IDF, pilots and other special forces are expected to train and carry out missions more frequently and in a voluntary manner due to the nature of their positions.

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.

Illustrative: Three pilots stand in front of an F-16 fighter jet as it takes off from the Israeli Air Force’s 117th Squadron, which was closed on September 30, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have been warning in recent months they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become if the government’s overhaul plans are realized.

The calls to refuse to show up for reserve duty started roiling the military earlier this year, as the judicial overhaul was first announced and as it advanced, growing in number even as they were condemned by senior politicians in both the opposition and the coalition. The threats again increased in recent weeks, as the government resumed moving ahead in the Knesset with some elements of the plan, after largely pausing the legislation in March following pressure by reservists on Gallant.

Gallant in late March publicly warned that the rift over the overhaul was causing divides in the military that posed a tangible threat to Israeli security. In response to that warning, Netanyahu ordered Gallant’s firing, a move that sparked intensified national protests, in turn leading Netanyahu to temporarily suspend the legislation for three months and withdraw Gallant’s dismissal.

The coalition is currently advancing a key bill from the package — legislation aimed at preventing courts from reviewing government and ministers’ decisions based on their “reasonableness.” It aims to pass the bill into law by month’s end.

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