IDF chief says military can only function in a ‘Jewish democratic state’

Herzi Halevi walks back comment to reservists that ‘secure dictatorship is better than an unprotected anarchy,’ warns army won’t be able to act during a ‘disintegration of society’

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

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi speaks at a military ceremony for reservist troops at Tel Aviv University, March 12, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi speaks at a military ceremony for reservist troops at Tel Aviv University, March 12, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Military chief Herzi Halevi admitted on Sunday to making controversial comments attributed to him over the weekend, after being quoted by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper as saying to a group of reservist soldiers that “a secure dictatorship is better than an unprotected anarchy.”

Halevi had made the comment in reference to the government’s legislative proposals to radically weaken the judiciary, reportedly telling the reservists that in such extreme circumstances, he would still try to effect change from within, as a dictatorial Israel was better than no Israel at all.

On Sunday, Halevi said the statement “does not reflect my worldview.”

“In the last few days, I spoke and held meetings with hundreds of reserve commanders from all branches and wings of the IDF. I listened to the murmurings, the different opinions and perceptions,” Halevi said at a military ceremony in Tel Aviv, calling the tensions over the judicial overhaul “days of controversy in Israeli society.”

“In one of the conversations, a remark was made regarding an extreme point to which the dispute could develop. I replied with a moral response about our duty to protect, about the fact that I will always be in this country, and added a sentence that I should not have said and that does not reflect my worldview at all,” Halevi said.

“I would like to take this opportunity to clarify my intentions,” he added. “The IDF will not be able to act during the disintegration of society. The IDF will not be able to act without the spirit of volunteering of the reservists and their willingness [to serve], which depends on the preservation of the IDF as the people’s army in a democratic Jewish state.”

The military chief cited the IDF’s code of ethics, known as the Spirit of the IDF: “The soldiers of the IDF will act according to the values ​​of the IDF and its orders, while keeping to the laws of the state and human dignity, and respecting the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

“I am committed to this on behalf of the entire IDF,” he added.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi holds a meeting with reserve soldiers on March 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The judicial overhaul has seen a growing number of reservists from numerous units warning they will not serve if the coalition proceeds with its plans to shackle the justice system, which opponents say will leave Israel a weakened democracy or even a dictatorship.

Last week, a number of pilot reservists who continue to do active service reportedly expressed fears to Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar that the new hardline government’s conduct could expose them to prosecution by global bodies such as the International Criminal Court.

Israel has long argued against such probes, pointing to the strength and independence of its own judiciary, which is responsible for investigating incidents of wrongdoing by Israeli forces. But critics of the government’s legal overhaul warn that efforts to restrict the High Court of Justice’s power will rob the country of legitimacy in the international arena.

Also last week, Bar dismissed but later reinstated a reservist fighter pilot for allegedly leading calls to refuse to show up for duty.

The reservist officer, Col. (res.) Gilad Peled, met with Bar Friday and the latter agreed to place him back on the flight roster

In a statement, the military said the IAF had been under the “false impression” that Peled was organizing and coordinating refusal to serve among other reservist pilots, and “came to the conclusion that formal conduct must be refined during this complex period.”

Sunday’s remarks were not the first by Halevi on the judicial overhaul. Last month, he called on reservist protesters to keep the army out of the controversy.

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