IDF chief said to warn PM of deepening military crisis if judicial overhaul approved

Halevi, Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem for routine security briefing, during which military leader reportedly conveys worries over deepening upheaval

IDF reservists block Route 1 to protest the government's planned judicial overhaul, March 1, 2023 (Courtesy/Brothers in Arms)
IDF reservists block Route 1 to protest the government's planned judicial overhaul, March 1, 2023 (Courtesy/Brothers in Arms)

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi reportedly warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday that should his hardline coalition finalize its drastic plans to overhaul the judiciary and approve into law a package of bills meant to politicize control of judicial appointments and restrict the powers of the High Court of Justice, the crisis within the military — whereby reserves forces are threatening not to report for duty in protest — will likely worsen.

Halevi and Netanyahu met in Jerusalem on Wednesday for a routine briefing on security matters, during which the military chief brought up the brewing crisis in the army, Walla reported Wednesday night, citing sources familiar with the contents of the meeting.

Halevi conveyed his concerns that should the judicial plans materialize, the upheaval within the military will deepen and expand, according to the report. Halevi issued a similar warning earlier this month, telling Netanyahu that he was “very worried by the spread of refusal to serve, and of the discussion about the refusal to serve,” to the point where it “could harm the IDF’s operational capacity.”

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on the Knesset, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges. There have been weekly mass protests for over two months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders, Nobel-winning economists, prominent security officials, and many more.

Increasingly, reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which they charge the country will become under the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

Military brass has insisted that the armed services must remain outside any political brawl, but numerous developments in recent weeks have indicated the phenomenon is only growing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant award incoming IDF chief Herzi Halevi with the rank of lieutenant general at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 16, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Wednesday, reports proliferated of reservist soldiers from multiple units throughout the military declaring they would not show up for duty over the Netanyahu government’s overhaul push.

Channel 12 reported earlier in the day that 700 reservists in the Nahal Brigade sent a letter to Halevi and to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant urging them to do everything in their power to stop the judicial overhaul. “This is a violation of the social contract. This is not the way of the State of Israel,” they wrote.

In parallel, 100 recently discharged armored corp officers wrote their own letter to security chiefs warning that “some of us will stop reporting for reserve duty if the coup d’état passes.”

In another letter reported by Haaretz, 100 Israeli Air Force senior reservists announced that they would cease reporting for non-emergency service due to the overhaul.

They joined the 180 pilots, 50 controllers, and 40 drone operators who have already taken such a step.

Haaretz also reported that the IDF identified a significant drop in the number of ground force troops reporting for reserve duty.

In the elite 551st Paratroopers Brigade, only 57 percent of reservists reported for duty this week — down significantly from the usual turnout of 90%, according to the Wednesday report. The unit had been expecting a 78% turnout rate among its 700 reservists amid opposition to the government’s effort to radically restrict the Supreme Court’s power, but army officials were dismayed to learn that the protest’s scope had gone much further than they anticipated.

File: Israeli reserve soldiers, veterans and activists protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, on February 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A military source told Haaretz that the low turnout rate was an indicator of what lies ahead if the government continues to move forward with the overhaul.

The 551st Brigade is one of two reserve battalions in the IDF’s 98th Division.

“It’s far from anything we imagined we’d end up with, and it’s not easy to accept,” a military source told the paper.

The IDF’s Central Command had been optimistic until now about maintaining high call-up rates, since most of the reservists threatening not to show up for duty have been in the Air Force, in addition to the fact that many in the 98th Division who have reserve duty in the West Bank are settlers themselves, Haaretz said.

Also on Wednesday, Channel 12 reported that the non-commissioned officers in the Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division notified the IDF that they plan to cancel their contracts if the judicial overhaul is passed. The officers have rejected the new proposal now being advanced for remaking the Judicial Appointments Committee, dismissing the coalition’s claim that it represents a “softening” of its position.

The officers will pay a fine if they cancel their contracts but a representative told Channel 12 that it was a price they were willing to pay.

Members of the “Brothers in Arms” IDF reservists organization hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On Tuesday, leaders of a protest group representing reserve soldiers and officers announced that they would be escalating their actions against the government’s plans to radically curtail the power of the judiciary.

The group, known as Brothers in Arms, said they would begin to sign reservists onto a declaration of refusal to serve, which would be implemented should the government move ahead with the judicial overhaul.

“We have been protesting in the streets for 11 weeks. An executive branch with unlimited power is a dictatorship. We are afraid of it. If the laws of the dictatorship are enacted, a people’s army cannot exist. A people’s army only exists in a democracy,” said Lt. Col. (res.) Ron Scherf, one of the founders of Brothers in Arms.

Scherf, who served in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, said at a press conference that if the overhaul bills are passed, “we and tens of thousands more who are with us will stop volunteering for reserve duty.

“The army is disintegrating before your eyes,” he said, addressing Gallant. “We expect you to stand up and say that you will not vote for the laws. This is the basic thing we expect, this is the minimum.”

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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