Netanyahu: If calls spread for refusal to serve, State of Israel in ‘terrible danger’

In London briefing following meeting with Sunak, PM says Memorial Day would be used for political ends ‘even if I would halt the legislation’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at 10 Downing Street in London, March 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at 10 Downing Street in London, March 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said 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 government’s judicial 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 UK 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, 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 stand against” the phenomenon, which has been growing in recent weeks among those who stand firmly opposed to the government’s plans to radically shake up the judiciary, including giving the coalition widespread control over the appointment of Israel’s judges. Many groups of elite IDF reservists from all branches of the military have declared that they will not continue to serve if the government’s program is enacted.

“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 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 one 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 would halt the legislation, it wouldn’t help” to 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 judicial overhaul. 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. (Photo by 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 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 was slated to meet later Friday with UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, also 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 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 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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