Netanyahu orders top brass to maintain IDF fitness as reservist revolt bites

PM briefed by Gallant, Halevi and others on state of military readiness amid increasing alarm over damage wrought by reservists halting volunteer duty

An anti-overhaul activist protesting in army duds in Tel Aviv, on August 12, 2023. His poster contains a slogan about bravery under fire. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An anti-overhaul activist protesting in army duds in Tel Aviv, on August 12, 2023. His poster contains a slogan about bravery under fire. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was briefed by the country’s military brass on the state of the military’s readiness Sunday, amid growing alarm that a protest by reservists had begun to take a toll on the country’s ability to defend itself in war.

The premier, who had reportedly been slated for R&R in the Golan Heights Sunday afternoon, instead headed for Israel Defense Forces headquarters at the Kirya in Tel Aviv for talks on the military’s “fitness and cohesion” with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and other generals.

“The prime minister ordered that the IDF’s fitness and preparedness be maintained in times of routine and emergency, for any challenge,” Netanyahu’s political bureau said in a statement announcing the meeting.

There was no readout of the meeting from Gallant’s office or the IDF. Netanyahu’s top political rival Yair Lapid accused him of a “cowardly” attempt to shirk responsibility for the crisis, with a report Sunday claiming that the premier had screamed at his generals for speaking publicly on the issue days earlier.

Hours earlier, Gallant attempted to reassure new military recruits that the draft process had not been impacted by an ongoing societal rift over the government’s judicial overhaul legislation.

But as the reservists’ revolt has spread to some of the armed forces’ most elite units and divisions, military leaders have struggled to stay sanguine on the issue publicly, with the IDF’s spokesman admitting last week that “there is limited harm in some areas.”

In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) visit an IDF Central Command base, August 1, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Despite reports in Hebrew-language media that Netanyahu pushed off his vacation for the Sunday meeting, the statement from his bureau appeared to downplay the urgency, noting that the premier had held several such consultations in recent weeks.

“The prime minister fully rejected the phenomenon of conditional reserve service,” the statement read, an apparent softening of Netanyahu’s tone regarding reservists who have stopped showing up for volunteer duty or threatened to do so. Netanyahu and members of his government have previously used the term “insubordination” to refer to the reservists’ actions.

“All the participants in the meeting agreed that political controversies need to be left out of the IDF,” the statement added, noting that National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, a close Netanyahu political confidant, was among the participants.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that among the generals present at the meeting was Air Force head Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, who on Friday warned reserves pilots who have declared they would no longer show up for volunteer duty to protest the overhaul that the state of the force’s readiness was “worsening.”

The talks came after the military, Shin Bet security service and Mossad all unanimously denied a Channel 12 news report on Sunday that their chiefs were considering publicly detailing the worsening status of those bodies’ capabilities next month.

Chief of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar speaks at the Tel Nof air base on August 6, 2023 (Israel Air Force)

The report said that they were considering such a move after Netanyahu last week was said to deny a request for the information by some cabinet ministers, fearing it would be leaked to the public.

During Friday’s talks with reservists, Bar told reservists that the air force’s flight school, training apparatus and operational capabilities had been damaged by the protest, according to a report in the Ynet news website. He was said to have noted that the impact would be felt next month, when large drills are planned.

The comments, some of which were confirmed by the IDF, led Netanyahu to convene Gallant, Halevi and Bar for a dressing down by videoconference Friday evening, according to a Channel 13 news report Sunday.

Faced with pleas from the military heads over how to stanch the outflow of volunteers, Netanyahu yelled at them that their comments were damaging Israel’s defense stature, according to the report.

“This is the army ruling over the state, you’re damaging our deterrent credibility,” he was said to have shouted. “Why are you putting out these headlines?”

Both Halevi and Bar refused requests to walk back comments on the army’s readiness, the unsourced report claimed.

Netanyahu’s bureau denied that he had become shrill during the talks, telling Channel 13 that “even when the prime minister speaks forcefully, he doesn’t yell.”

The worsening military crisis, fueled by some of the largest protests Israel has ever seen, has threatened to become a back-breaking political liability for Netanyahu. The prime minister’s right-wing and religious-backed coalition has rejected the reservists’ protests as a dangerous and unprecedented form of political blackmail by the military.

At the same time, the issue has led to worries over whether Netanyahu, on trial in three graft cases, can be trusted to keep Israel secure at the expense of his political and legal fortunes.

IDF reserve soldiers sign a declaration saying they intend to end their volunteer reserve duty, outside the IDF headquarters and near the Tel Aviv Museum in Tel Aviv, July 19, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu “prefers that reserves pilots who announced they were halting service lose their flying skills and leave the service, even at the expense of the army’s operational capabilities,” Haaretz editor Aluf Benn, a prominent Netanyahu critic, wrote in a column Sunday. “Like other autocratic rulers, Netanyahu would be happy to cleanse the army of officers who don’t identify with him personally and politically. If they leave on their own, even better.”

Following Sunday’s meeting, Lapid, the opposition leader, accused Netanyahu of attempting to shift blame onto the military by ordering the IDF to maintain fitness in the face of the protests.

“The damage to the IDF’s fitness is the direct result of one thing — the destructive regime coup being led by Netanyahu’s government,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, calling for the legislation to be halted.

Some 10,000 reservists who frequently show up for duty on a voluntary basis said they would no longer do so last month after the coalition advanced the first major piece of legislation related to its overhaul of the judiciary. The reservists, many of whom acted on their threats, have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become if the government’s overhaul plans are realized.

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