PM warns refusal to serve endangers Israel’s existence, as Herzog advances compromise

TV report claims Netanyahu eager to adopt president’s proposal as protests against overhaul spread to IDF, but is unsure he’ll be able to convince justice minister to go along

From left, police chief Kobi Shabtai, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana at a Purim megillah reading on a Border Police base in the West Bank on March 6, 2023. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
From left, police chief Kobi Shabtai, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana at a Purim megillah reading on a Border Police base in the West Bank on March 6, 2023. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out Monday against the growing phenomenon of reserve soldiers threatening to refuse to report for duty in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

“Refusal to serve threatens the foundation of our existence, and therefore it must have no place in our ranks,” Netanyahu said in a press conference from a Border Police base in the West Bank settlement of Beit Horon, standing alongside far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana.

Netanyahu said that “Israeli society has always condemned those refusing to serve. It has never allowed refusers to gain a foothold.

“When you are on the battlefield and look right or left, you don’t do that to check the political viewpoints of your neighbors,” he continued. “In our society, there is room for protest, room for opposing viewpoints, but no room for refusing service.”

The remarks represented an escalation in the government’s rhetoric against the phenomenon, which has picked up steam in recent days, as the coalition moves forward with legislation to radically restrict the High Court of Justice’s power and assert political control over judicial appointments.

Nonetheless, efforts by President Isaac Herzog to craft a compromise on the coalition’s controversial plan appeared to be making progress on Monday. “We are closer than ever to the possibility of an agreed-upon framework,” Herzog said, without specifying who was involved in negotiations.

Channel 12 reported Monday that Herzog plans to present a highly detailed plan to the sides in the coming days in order to force them to come to the table. The unsourced report said that under the president’s proposal, the government will not be given a clear majority in the judicial appointments panel, as is the case in the coalition legislation currently advancing through the Knesset.

Herzog has convened a panel of academic experts who have helped him craft the compromise proposal. Channel 12 said that the experts have closed many of the gaps between them in recent days, as they seek to produce a format that could be acceptable to both sides.

The report said the experts include members of the conservative Kohelet Policy Forum, which is believed to have inspired many of the coalition’s current proposals, but did not provide details on any other members.

President Isaac Herzog speaks to local authority heads at the President’s Residence, on March 6, 2023. (Haim Zach / GPO)

The network said Herzog is hoping to get both the coalition and opposition on board with his proposal. If they do, the language from his draft could simply replace the language of the coalition’s legislation during bill markups. This would allow the sides to overcome the coalition’s refusal to halt the legislative process to give way to negotiations, according to Channel 12.

Herzog’s panel of academics has also been discussing the coalition’s demand that there be unanimous agreement from all 15 judges in order to strike down Knesset legislation, the report said. The academics have instead proposed that only 10 or 11 judges would be needed but have yet to reach an agreement, Channel 12 said.

The president does not know if he will be able to gain the support of opposition leaders, given the intense public protests, the report said. But he is hoping to enlist support for his compromise proposal from those who have until now heavily criticized the government’s overhaul efforts, including former Bank of Israel chief Yaakov Frenkel, Israeli tech leaders, ex-Supreme Court presidents and members of Benny Gantz’s center-right National Unity party.

A senior Likud official told Channel 12 that Netanyahu has expressed his interest in reaching a compromise but is concerned about whether Justice Minister Yariv Levin — whom the prime minister has consistently backed in public — will go along with it. Netanyahu reportedly was set to announce last week that he was pausing the controversial legislation to make room for negotiations, but held off on making the announcement because Levin threatened to quit. The justice minister has said he will not halt the legislative process “for even a minute” and has reportedly warned that stopping the legislation could lead to the collapse of the coalition.

The Likud official told Channel 12 that the compromise being advanced by Herzog is “definitely an option” as far as Netanyahu is concerned. However, the source noted that Levin may be able to thwart Herzog’s efforts.

Channel 13 reported that Netanyahu was making progress in convincing Levin, and that at the heart of their disagreement was the judicial appointments panel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The network said Netanyahu’s desire to reach a compromise intensified in recent days, as the protests against his government’s efforts expanded into the military.

Responding to Netanyahu’s press conference on refusal Monday, opposition leader Yair Lapid said that “the only one responsible for the unfolding chaos and the deep rift within Israeli society and within the IDF is this government — the most destructive government in the country’s history.”

“Netanyahu, in your government there are two parties whose platform is a refusal to serve,” Lapid said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, whose constituencies largely avoid serving in the IDF, opting instead to study Torah in yeshiva.

“Why don’t you say a word about them? Instead of holding shameful press conferences with the TikTok clown, just stop the madness,” Lapid added, taking a shot at Ben Gvir, who is known for his avid social media presence.

National Unity party chairman Gantz, who also sits in the opposition, similarly reprimanded Netanyahu for the remarks, saying he was the one injecting politics into the army. The claim appeared to refer to Likud’s decision to grant Ben Gvir and far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich significant authority over Israeli security and civilian control in the West Bank.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The one refusing here is first and foremost you, Netanyahu, by refusing to stop the coup and start negotiations. You refuse to hear the calls of Israeli patriots and are dragging an entire country into chaos,” Gantz said.

IDF chief Herzi Halevi is slated to meet this week with pilots and officers from an array of reserve units to discuss the growing protests against the overhaul unfolding within the military’s ranks.

Halevi has warned Netanyahu that the protests’ growing spread in the military could harm its operational capabilities.

The top general will not hold a sit-down with the 37 pilots of a 40-man Israeli Air Force fighter jet squadron who announced that they would not show up to one of their planned training sessions later this week in protest of the overhaul, a military source said.

They were the highest-profile group in a growing list of IDF units, including some of the most elite, that have seen members threaten to not show up amid widescale opposition to the government’s plans that critics say will harm Israel’s democracy, economy and security.

File: An IAF F-15I fighter jet of the 69th squadron takes off from the Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel, during a pilots graduation ceremony, June 22, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Earlier Monday, all of the living former chiefs of the IAF issued a letter to Netanyahu and Gallant, expressing their worry over the government’s continued push to radically restrict the power of the judiciary.

On Friday, dozens of senior pilots held an unprecedented meeting with the current IAF chief, Tomer Bar, in which they expressed major concerns about their continued service in the reserves.

The pilot reservists who continue to do active service reportedly expressed fears 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.

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