Netanyahu’s Legal Crusade Is Sparking a Military Backlash in Israel

Israel is currently going through its most serious constitutional and political crisis since its establishment 75 years ago. In recent weeks, the crisis has also gradually taken on strategic dimensions, as the country faces two new, interconnected dangers: a threat to the military’s internal solidarity and capabilities, and the possibility that Israel’s adversaries could see its domestic turmoil as an opportunity to attack it.

Israel’s ethos of military service, including reserve duty, remains at the heart of the national discussion. This, perhaps, is the main reason why so many acts of protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s legal plans are focused on a shared military background.

There have been more than 20 initiatives by reservists, or even veterans who are no longer in active service, against what the protesters describe as the coalition’s attempt to initiate a “regime overhaul.” Some of them announced they had decided to quit the military. Others are threatening to do that once the first laws are passed by the Knesset, presumably next week.

Several high-ranking retired security officials, including former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and former Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, have spoken out forcefully against the reforms, suggesting that there is deep opposition within the security services to such massive changes without broad public support.

The standoff could come to a head Thursday evening if Defense Minister Yoav Gallant proceeds as planned and addresses the nation on live television and Netanyahu then responds; the question of how a domestic political debate about judicial reforms could impact Israel’s military readiness and regional security is now front and center.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably assumed after the latest elections, in November 2022, that he could easily achieve his legislative goals. Netanyahu’s coalition enjoyed a significant majority—by Israeli standards—in the Knesset, 64 of 120 seats, while Israel’s center-left camp seemed devastated by the results.

During the campaign, Netanyahu and other senior members from his Likud party hardly mentioned their legal reform plans. Their statements mostly focused on security, such as Netanyahu’s commitment to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power or his hope to sign a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

But after the elections, the prime minister and his allies chose a shock and awe strategy: an intensified campaign intended to strengthen the government’s hold on the judiciary. Netanyahu, of course, has a personal motive: He is facing trial on three different charges of corruption. If convicted, he may be headed for jail. This is what turned Netanyahu from a great supporter of the judiciary to its biggest enemy.

One of Netanyahu’s new bedfellows, the far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, has been busy spreading havoc among the police and constantly fighting with its top brass, while demanding they take a more aggressive stance against protesters.

Smotrich and Netanyahu’s elder son, Yair, describe the protesters as “anarchists.” Netanyahu Jr., always one step ahead of the competition, also compared them to Nazi storm troopers. Yet many of these protesters actually served their country as elite soldiers, pilots, or navy personnel, while Yair (unlike his father or his famous uncle, Yoni) served only at a desk job.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s other coalition partners—the ultra-Orthodox parties—are seeking to exploit his urgent situation to finally receive full exemption from military service for their followers, tens of thousands of yeshiva (biblical school) students.

The ultra-Orthodox are now demanding a full exemption and also expect Netanyahu to pass an “override clause,” which would circumvent the Supreme Court striking down the proposed law as unconstitutional. This plan is naturally extremely unpopular among secular Israeli voters—because their sons and daughters are still required to serve.

The protest movements are utilizing this issue in their campaign. Last week, they even established a mock “draft office” in Bnei Brak, Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox city. But it is the presence of many former military, along with veterans of both Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel’s CIA and FBI equivalents), in the protest movement that raises bigger questions about where the crisis is heading.

Many retired generals, as well as former chiefs of the army and the intelligence agencies, have been interviewed by the Israeli media, attacking Netanyahu’s legal reform.

Many of them have disliked Netanyahu for years and criticized him regularly, for both his personal conduct and his refusal to restart the peace process with the Palestinians. But this is something completely different.

The struggle for the future of Israeli democracy has turned personal and acerbic. At the heart of it is a 73-year-old man who is the country’s longest-serving prime minister—and now a persona non grata in the eyes of many of his countrymen.

Army pensioners have more time on their hands and are relatively young compared to other retirees (they can retire at 42); it turns out they are also perfectly willing to fight to defend democratic institutions (for the moment, at least, strictly nonviolently). And since many of these senior veterans maintain connections with their previous service branches or military units, they now serve as unofficial speakers for their successors—and maybe as their public conscience as well.

The leaders of the Israeli security agencies—the Israel Defense Forces, Mossad, Shin Bet, and the police—are now described as the guardians of Israeli democracy. If push comes to shove and Netanyahu’s coalition succeeds in passing some of its proposed laws, many in Israel expect a direct confrontation.

The Supreme Court will, perhaps, strike down the laws; sooner or later, a crisis will ensue when one security chief or another faces contradicting orders from the court and the Knesset. One senior official, police chief Kobi Shabtai, has already announced that in this case he will obey the judiciary. Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir were not amused.

Yet the biggest challenge for the security chiefs remains the threat of refusal: thousands of reservists, and perhaps some career professionals as well, announcing that they will not show up for service because they are too busy fighting to save Israeli democracy.

On March 19, more than 180 reserve pilots announced they would do just that. This matters because the Israeli Air Force is at the heart of the country’s military capabilities but its actual number of active pilots is rather small. It also relies heavily on reservist pilots, who are usually more experienced and often serve as mission leaders in their respective squadrons.

If those pilots refuse to train for a couple of weeks (reservists are usually called on for one day each week), the level of preparedness for operational missions will gradually fall. This is bound to have a negative influence on the Air Force and even on the military at large.

Defense Minister Galant, a former general himself, understands the risk the refusals pose to military readiness. This is why he demanded Netanyahu stop the legal offensive and try to achieve wider agreement to the reforms. Israeli TV channels reported that Galant threatened to resign and that Netanyahu, under pressure, agreed to soften parts of his plan.

Yet the protest movement isn’t buying this. Both the protesters and opposition parties suspect that this is another government spin, and that Galant wasn’t seriously considering leaving office.

And Netanyahu was quick to shift the blame elsewhere. On March 19, he publicly demanded the army take vigorous steps against “refuseniks,” while goading the police to act aggressively against “violent protesters” (in truth, almost all violence had been aimed at the protesters, by government supporters).

Yet the Army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, hardly has any choice. He cannot jail the refuseniks since they are volunteers, and he can’t fire them because it would be very hard to find anyone as experienced to replace them. In their desperation, some Netanyahu supporters suggested that the army quickly train infantry officers to become pilots and replace the dissenting reservists. But the Israeli Air Force isn’t the U.K.’s Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain—and learning to fly a Spitfire is nothing like handling a super-sophisticated F-35. Netanyahu, unlike his followers, knows that.

Meanwhile, Israel’s enemies in the region are no doubt entertained by the chaos. For years, Israel was seen by friends and foes alike as the strongest military force in the Middle East; indeed, this is considered one of Netanyahu’s greatest long-term achievements.

But now Israel is facing an almost existential domestic threat, which may give some of its opponents’ ideas. Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, considers himself an expert on Israeli society. In May 2000, two days after the Israeli army’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, Nasrallah gave a speech at the town of Bint Jbeil. There, he claimed that Israeli society was as weak as cobweb. All the Arab countries needed to do, he said, was follow Hezbollah’s example and apply military pressure on Israel. Nasrallah repeated those views in two recent speeches, predicting that the Jewish state will disappear before it can celebrate its 80th year of independence, in 2028.

A few days later, a terrorist crossed into Israel from Lebanon and activated a roadside bomb about 35 miles south of the border. One Israeli citizen was severely injured. Hezbollah hadn’t claimed responsibility for the attack, which Israel suspects might be a joint operation involving both the Lebanese organization and a Palestinian faction.

Elsewhere, and much more importantly, Iran is expanding its nuclear program and has enriched uranium to 84 percent levels, close to weapons-grade material. Evidently, Israel’s enemies are watching the domestic crisis unfold—and drawing their own conclusions about the state’s capability and willingness to engage in battle, if necessary, under the new circumstances. And as Israelis know from experience, war in the Middle East often breaks out when nobody really plans to start one.

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