Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday warned lawmakers from his Likud party against disparaging reservist soldiers who have refused to serve in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul, after two ministers sparked an outcry over their harsh criticism of the troops.
“Refusals are a dangerous phenomenon that needs to be firmly opposed, but when we do, even in the heat of the moment, it must be done within the limits of the discourse,” Netanyahu said at a meeting with Likud lawmakers.
“Our goal is to try to calm tensions and not inflame them, and this applies to everyone without exception,” Netanyahu said, according to Hebrew media reports.
Also Tuesday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Likud leveled barely-veiled criticism at fellow members of the government who spoke out against the protesting reservist soldiers.
“Those who disparage IDF soldiers, from the left or the right, have no place in public service,” Gallant said. “I cherish, appreciate, and support the reservists, regardless of their political position.”
Both statements appeared to be referring to comments made this week by Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi and Information Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan, both of Likud.
Karhi wrote in a social media post marking the Purim holiday that those who refuse to show up for IDF reserve duty in protest of the judicial plan can “go to hell.”
Atbaryan said on Twitter that “there were soldiers here who took the bones of their brothers out of the grave and did not refuse an order,” a reference to military rabbis who dug up bodies to be shifted from Israeli settlements in Gaza during the 2005 disengagement.
A group of reservists also protested outside Karhi’s home on Tuesday, telling him he had caused permanent damage with his incendiary remarks.
Government leaders, military brass and others have reacted with shock to the wave of protests by reservists, which ratcheted up Sunday as 37 out of 40 fighter jet pilots from a key squadron announced they would refuse to take part in a training exercise due to the overhaul and a rise in West Bank settler violence. The pilots said Tuesday they would show up to base as ordered, but only for discussions, and not training.
In another high-profile incident on Friday, dozens of senior pilots in the Israeli Air Force held an unprecedented meeting with IAF head Tomer Bar in which they reportedly expressed major concerns about their continued service in the reserves, after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s call for the state to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara, along with the government’s plan to radically restrict the power of the country’s judiciary.
Military, government and opposition leaders have decried the protests by soldiers, saying the army should be kept free of politics and warning that mass insubordination will harm national security.
Along with his statement in support of the troops, Gallant called on reservists to stop threatening to refuse to do their duty as part of the protests against the government.
“The word refusal [to serve] should remain out of the conversation. This refusal is undermining the most basic foundation of the state’s existence — our security, and we cannot allow that,” Gallant said.
“The threats of refusal are playing with fire. We need to leave the IDF above all debate — a protest against the government does not permit activities against the state,” he said.
IDF chief Herzi Halevi also spoke out against the protests on Tuesday, calling the insubordination a “red line.”
On Monday evening, Netanyahu said the reservists’ protest “threatens the foundations of our existence, and therefore it has no place in our ranks.”
Gallant and Halevi met Tuesday with soldiers in the military’s reserves as the country’s leadership attempted to stanch a flux of troops saying they would refuse to train or serve in protest.
Some of the soldiers were dismayed by Gallant’s response to the situation.
Reservists involved in the discussion told Channel 13 news that they left the meeting feeling “shocked,” complaining that Gallant “does not understand what is going on at all and speaks in slogans.”
“He did not promise anything and lacked empathy. He did not say anything about the protest. We are frustrated,” one soldier told the network.
Representatives of the reservists were quoted by Channel 12 as telling Gallant and Halevi during the meeting that they should back the troops more vocally.
“Your silence is very hurtful to us. We are being insulted by contemptible people in the government. You, who are in charge, must give us backing, ensure calm, protect and defend us. Where will you be when we need you? Defense minister, are you motivated solely by political considerations? This is simply despicable,” one was quoted saying.
Gallant and Halevi met with reservists from the naval, intelligence, air force, and ground force branches of the IDF. More meetings are planned for Wednesday.
Senior opposition figures Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot, and Avigdor Liberman also have expressed opposition to reservists’ calls to boycott their duties but voiced understanding of their motives. Gantz and Eisenkot are both former IDF chiefs of staff.