Israeli conservative think tank warns overhaul fight causing ‘enormous damage’

Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security says politicians must ‘come to their senses’ and focus on ‘existential security challenges,’ as Iran boosts influence in region

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

Israeli reserve soldiers and activists protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Bnei Brak, March 16, 2023. (Flash90)
Israeli reserve soldiers and activists protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Bnei Brak, March 16, 2023. (Flash90)

An Israeli security-focused think tank considered to be hawkish and to hold conservative views issued a rare warning on Sunday over the controversy surrounding the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

In a position paper titled “Israel should prepare for war — and politicians need to come to their senses,” the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) said the overhaul effort has “caused enormous damage to the State of Israel.”

“The struggle over judicial reform has caused enormous damage to the State of Israel. On the political level, the image of American backing has been undermined (even if, in practice, the defense cooperation continues as usual),” said JISS. “On the economic level, the country’s credit rating has decreased. The public discourse in Israel reached new heights of acerbity and alienation. Above all, national cohesion was cracked, primarily due to the IDF being used as a tool in the political debate.

“Israel is seen from the outside as a torn society, gradually losing its ability to function. Friendly countries, among them those who signed the Abraham Accords and threw their weight behind Israel’s strategic presence in the region, are watching in astonishment at an internal conflict that indicates the State of Israel has domestic problems that could dismantle its military capability,” the institute said.

JISS said “Israel’s strategic environment is becoming more problematic and dangerous than it has been for decades,” in light of “regional and global balance changes.

“Iran is displaying greater self-confidence — due to the effective suppression of internal unrest and the strategic connection to Russia and China — which is translating into agreements with Arab countries, primarily Saudi Arabia. Syria, Iran’s ally, is being reaccepted by the Arab world. Beyond that, Tehran — which is progressing toward accumulating fissile material for nuclear weapons — understands that the US is busy elsewhere (Ukraine and China), and is reducing its involvement in the Middle East,” the position paper continued.

“This reality also increases the freedom of action of Iran and its proxies to escalate military confrontation with Israel,” it said.

“These changes create a different security reality. We have already experienced multi-front armed conflict in recent days, admittedly on a small scale,” JISS said, referring to recent rocket fire on Israel from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria within the span of a few days.

The crater from a rocket fired from Lebanon that landed in Shlomi, northern Israel, April 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“The chances of deterioration into a wider conflict are more significant today than before. Thus Israel needs to prepare for the tangible possibility of war. Given Iran’s progress toward a nuclear arsenal, it is also possible that we will soon reach a point where there will be no avoiding attacking Iran, even without American assistance. Such an event could turn into a multi-front war,” the institute said.

“It is incumbent upon Israel’s leaders from both sides of the political aisle to put aside their differences or quickly reach a compromise that will allow the country to focus on the existential security challenges that lie ahead,” it continued.

“The State of Israel must adopt a new paradigm that prioritizes security needs over other legitimate needs. The IDF and all elements of the security establishment must be removed from the political discourse, and elected officials must ensure that they have the necessary resources to prepare for a war that may be inevitable,” JISS added.

“The Latin proverb, Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war), is most appropriate at this time,” the position paper concluded.

The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security was founded in 2017 (initially as the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies) by and consists mainly of scholars and former officials who belonged to another right-leaning think tank — Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA).

Tens of thousands of Israeli protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist, and ultra-Orthodox parties, recently paused the legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges, due to mass protests and notably warnings by defense officials of potential harm to the IDF’s competency.

Talks are currently being held between the coalition and opposition, in an effort to reach a compromise on judicial reform.

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

Soldiers have expressed concern that a lack of international trust in the independence of Israel’s judiciary could expose them to prosecution in international tribunals over actions they were ordered to carry out during service.

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