IDF chief cautions army on verge of curbing ops due to absence of reservists – report

Top brass reportedly also concerned anti-overhaul protests might spread to full-time soldiers; security official says internal rift has galvanized adversaries

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi seen during a tour on near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, March 16, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi seen during a tour on near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, March 16, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has warned government leaders that the army is on the verge of reducing the scope of certain operations due to the large number of reservists refusing to report for duty in protest over their efforts to weaken Israel’s justice system, The New York Times reported on Friday.

The report cited three Israeli officials who spoke on condition of anonymity and did not elaborate on Halevi’s warning.

The IDF’s top brass is also concerned that the protests against the government’s effort to restrict the Supreme Court’s power might spread from reservists to full-time soldiers, two of the officials told the Times.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied that Halevi or others had notified the premier that the protests were posing such a threat to the IDF’s operational capacity.

Halevi is widely reported to have warned leaders in recent days that the judicial overhaul is leading to deep and dangerous divisions within the military, as growing numbers of reservists warn they will not serve the military of a non-democratic country.

That fear is also believed to be at the top of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s mind. Gallant is widely reported to have planned Thursday to call for a halt to the legislation over his intense concerns on the matter, but put the matter off after talking to Netanyahu.

The Times also cited a senior defense official who said the Shin Bet security service has detected an uptick in attempts by Jewish extremists to carry out attacks against Palestinians, adding that they feel empowered by the hardline members of Netanyahu’s government. At the beginning of the month, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called to “wipe out” a Palestinian town before backtracking and apologizing, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has a long history of ties to settler extremists.

The defense official told the Times that Israel’s adversaries — Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Iran — all appear emboldened by the internal crisis in Israel and have even increased cooperation in hopes of bringing about the Jewish state’s collapse against the backdrop of the mass protests against the government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that calls for refusal to serve in the IDF are a grave danger to the future of the State of Israel, and could spread beyond those who oppose the overhaul.

“Surrendering to [IDF] refusal is a terrible danger to the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a briefing to reporters following his meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in London. “It won’t stop with just one side, it will move from side to side.”

The prime minister said he has heard from those who support the government’s plans who say they could also refuse to serve in the military if the legislation is not passed.

“You need to understand what is happening on the other side. People say that if it’s like this because of the threat of IDF refusal, then why just on one side?” Netanyahu said. “They say: ‘We will not send our children either.'”

Netanyahu said he expects the security establishment to adopt a “firm position against” the phenomenon.

“The country cannot exist without the IDF. There will not be a nation, it’s very simple,” Netanyahu said Friday. “All red lines have been crossed. People who were responsible for the security of the country have suddenly adopted this cynicism.”

On Friday, 200 reservist pilots and 100 doctors who serve in the military reserves said they will halt service due to the legislative push, as opposition to the government’s efforts in the army’s ranks continued to spread.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street in London, March 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

After the meeting between Netanyahu and Sunak Friday morning, Israel and the UK both issued statements about the sit-down, although only the British readout mentioned the judicial overhaul. Sunak’s statement said he had stressed to Netanyahu “the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms in Israel.”

A senior Israeli official who was present during the meeting said that the issue of the judicial overhaul was discussed for less than a minute toward the end of the Sunak-Netanyahu meeting.

Netanyahu also spoke out Friday against concerns that the intense protests and divides could color Israel’s national Memorial Day next month.

The prime minister said that “even if I were to halt the legislation, it wouldn’t help” keep Memorial Day apolitical, “because whoever wants to make a provocation on Memorial Day will do it.”

Netanyahu said that he spoke out strongly against any attempts to use Memorial Day to political ends while he led a strong opposition campaign against the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

“People would tell me that I was disrespecting Yoni,” said Netanyahu, referring to his late brother, Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed during the IDF raid on Entebbe in 1976. “It is forbidden to say that!”

Netanyahu’s convoy was greeted Friday morning in London by several hundred Israeli and Jewish protesters chanting against the prime minister and his government’s controversial legislation. In an unusual move, he and Sunak did not make any public comments or hold a press conference, rather only released readouts of their meeting, which lasted about an hour.

Demonstrators protest on Whitehall, ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet with Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Downing Street in central London on March 24, 2023. (Isabel Infantes/AFP)

Sunak has faced pressure in recent days to publicly comment on Israel’s highly contentious judicial shakeup, leading to speculation that he chose to forgo any public comments with Netanyahu in order to avoid taking a stance.

During Netanyahu’s visit to Berlin last week, he and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz publicly sparred during a press conference over the government’s continued push for legislation that will greatly expand political control over Israel’s High Court.

Netanyahu said Friday he’d invited Sunak to visit Israel in the near future. According to the British readout, Sunak said he “looked forward to visiting Israel at the earliest opportunity.”

Netanyahu met later Friday with UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, without any public statements or press conference. His only other scheduled meeting during his trip — which is slated to last until early Sunday morning — is with the group Conservative Friends of Israel.

As it stands, the legislative package will — among other things — allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight, and put the selection of most judges in the hands of coalition politicians. Netanyahu said Thursday night that the law on selecting judges would be enacted next week.

While supporters say the judicial overhaul will rebalance power away from an overly activist court, critics argue the moves will remove essential checks on executive and legislative power, putting democracy in peril and leaving many basic rights unprotected.

Amy Spiro contributed to this report.

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