White House announces its support for Herzog's efforts

US senators worried about overhaul’s security fallout, IDF vet says after DC visit

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers concerned about military chain of command, troop morale, reservist boycotts, says delegation of high-level reservists

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Israeli soldiers on the border between Lebanon and Israel, March 15, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers on the border between Lebanon and Israel, March 15, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

NEW YORK — US senators from both sides of the aisle are concerned about the security implications of the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan and other hardline policies, a senior Israel Defense Forces reservist said after a series of meetings in Washington, DC.

The delegation of high-ranking IDF officers visited the US this week to spread awareness of their fears about the potential security fallout of the government’s policies.

“Our angle is important to them and that’s the main reason we could meet with people from both sides,” said Col. (Res.) Joab Rosenberg, former deputy head analyst for IDF intelligence, who met with senators for about five hours this week, along with Col. (Res.) Ophir Bear, who piloted F-16 fighter jets for 27 years, and Brig. Gen. (Res.) Roy Riftin, former chief of IDF artillery.

“It’s not about being progressive or conservative or anything. It’s about Israel and I think they all care about Israel,” Rosenberg said. “All of them were very sympathetic to our concerns and worries. They wanted to learn more details about our specific angle on national security and the IDF.”

The veterans expressed their fears to the Congress members about the new government’s effects on national security and the IDF, including disruptions to the chain of command, troops’ morale, reservists boycotting service, and far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s additional position as a minister in the Defense Ministry.

The group met with Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal and other elected officials who preferred to remain anonymous for political reasons, Rosenberg said.

The delegation visited the US this week to further pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against his government’s legislative blitz. In addition to meeting with Congress members, the veterans spoke with US media and Jewish community members.

Col. Joab Rosenberg, left, Brigadier General Roy Riftin, center, and Col. Ophir Bear at the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York City, March 12, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The veterans argue that the judicial overhaul, coupled with bellicose statements from coalition lawmakers, threatens Israel’s security by undermining the IDF’s standing as a moral army and opening fissures in society, among other reasons.

They came as private citizens and not on behalf of any organization, and represented over 140 officers who signed onto a letter warning about the “grave implications” of the government’s policies for national security and regional stability.

The judicial overhaul has seen a growing number of reservists from numerous units warning they will not serve if the coalition proceeds with its plans to shackle the justice system, which opponents say will leave Israel a weakened democracy or even a dictatorship. The calls have roiled the military and political leadership in recent weeks, growing in number even as they are condemned by senior politicians in both the opposition and the coalition.

Hundreds of IDF elite reservists announced Thursday that they would halt their volunteer service as of Sunday, making good on threats issued several weeks ago in response to the government’s plans to radically alter the judicial system.

Separately Thursday, 100 senior reserve officers in an elite Israel Air Force unit issued a letter saying they were unsure that they can continue to serve moving forward.

The legislative plans by the right-religious government, Israel’s most hardline to date, have sparked mass public protests in Israel for over two months, as well as fierce backlash from opposition politicians and dire warnings from economists, business leaders, legal experts, academics and security officials.

Critics of the government’s divisive plan have said the coalition’s proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have called it a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court and end what they view as undemocratic de-facto rule by unelected elites.

The coalition on Wednesday brushed aside an alternative proposal for judicial reform from President Isaac Herzog.

The White House on Thursday offered its support for Herzog’s proposal.

“The genius of our democracy — and frankly Israel’s democracy — is that they’re built on strong institutions, that they include checks and balances that foster an independent judiciary,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said during a press briefing. “We support President Herzog’s ongoing effort to seek a solution that is consistent with those same democratic principles.”

A number of polls have indicated the legislation is broadly unpopular with the public.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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