TEL AVIV, Israel – A plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to severely curtail the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court has sparked weeks of protests, rocked the country’s tech sector and raised fears of political violence.
Now, protests are breaking out even within the nation’s military.
An Israeli settler takes part in celebrations for the Jewish holiday of Purim, as Israeli army soldiers patrol, in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, March 7, 2023. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
Hundreds of soldiers in the military reserves have signed letters expressing their reluctance to participate in non-essential missions or have already withdrawn from training missions, according to authorities.
Affected units include the 8200 division, which deals with signaling and cyber intelligence and whose graduates have helped boost the country’s technology industry, as well as elite combat units.
The military leadership fears that growing anger among the ranks over the government’s plans will affect the operational readiness of the Israeli armed forces, according to senior military commanders.
Worrying most is unrest in the air force, where reserve-duty pilots are increasingly upset by the government’s plans, according to officials.
They also fear that they could be asked to take part in illegal operations and that the restrictions placed on the Israeli judiciary could reinforce foreign requests to prosecute them at the International Criminal Court, the officials said.
Reserve service pilots typically lead Israel’s regular airstrikes against Syria and the Gaza Strip, and would take part in any major Israeli attack on nuclear facilities in Iran.
The unrest within the army is the latest outbreak of opposition to government plans to reform the judiciary following protests that brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets of cities including Tel Aviv.
Prominent American Jews have also criticized the plans, and on Sunday former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote in a guest essay for The New York Times that Netanyahu was “courting disaster.”
But for many Israelis, anger within the military is perhaps the most worrying and significant reaction to the government’s plans, which would increase its control over how judges are chosen and limit the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down new laws.
About 50 squadron chiefs representing hundreds of reserve pilots met with the head of the Israeli air force on Friday to express their misgivings about the government’s judicial review efforts, according to five Israeli military officials who attended the meeting o they were informed of it and that they insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The Air Force is made up overwhelmingly of reservists who typically report for duty three or four times a month.
Thirty-seven pilots from a key squadron of F-15 fighters later wrote to the air chief saying they would be leaving training for part of this week, while stressing they were still available for combat missions, according to three officials briefed. of the letter.
Many Israelis believe the government’s plan to reform the judiciary, which would make it easier for parliament to overrule the court, will undermine the country’s democracy.
This view is shared by many military officers, some of whom have engaged in regular protests, even as an analysis of polling data from the November general election suggested that the ruling coalition also received strong support from rank and file soldiers.
For government supporters, the judicial changes it is pushing through Parliament are an essential means of giving a majority of elected lawmakers primacy over unelected judges.
But for critics, they would remove one of the few checks on government overreach, in a country that lacks a formal constitution, threatening the rights of Israeli minorities.
Both sides have accused each other of attempting a coup, and a recent poll suggested that more than a third of Israelis fear civil war could break out over the crisis.
Israelis have attended mass rallies every week against the proposals since the beginning of the year, in one of the largest and longest waves of protest in Israel’s history.
These tensions are rattling the military, once seen as a social leveler uniting otherwise fragmented parts of society and which remains essential to the security of a country embroiled in several low-intensity conflicts, including with Iran.
Friday’s meeting between the nearly 50 officers of the reserve pilot corps and the commander of the air forces, Major General Tomer Bar, was held at the air force headquarters and was tense and emotional, according to the participants.
According to several military officials, the reservists’ concerns included concerns about judicial review itself, as well as fears that the government, run in part by far-right political leaders, would order them to enact something they deemed illegal.
Last week, a far-right defense ministry minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who is also finance minister, called for the state to “annihilate” a Palestinian town at the center of recent violence in the occupied West Bank.
One of the meeting participants asked how a pilot could know for sure that when given the coordinates to bomb a given target, he would not be serving that target, according to three officials.
Since the reform would undermine judicial independence in Israel, it could reinforce the argument that the Israeli judicial system is unfit to try alleged crimes committed by Israelis, according to Roy Schondorf, a recently retired assistant attorney general for international legal affairs.
In turn, this could increase pressure on prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague to indict Israeli officials, according to Schondorf, who has overseen efforts to protect Israeli officials from international persecution.
“If the perception in the world is that there is no effective judicial review in Israel, and that legal review is not as professional and independent as it is today,” then international prosecutors “can stop believing that investigative procedures in Israel are adequate and impartial,” Schondorf said.
Although no formal threats to avoid reserve duty were made at the meeting itself, all but three of the 40 members of 69 Squadron, a key strike force that flies F-16 fighters, subsequently wrote Bar to withdraw from training for part this week, but are still available for combat missions.
In a joint letter to Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday, the 10 surviving former air force chiefs expressed “great concern” over the “processes taking place in the State of Israel and in the forces aerial”.
The letter added:
“We fear the consequences of these processes and the grave and palpable threat that may be perceived to the State of Israel.”
The government has largely dismissed the reservists’ concerns and warnings as tantrums by a privileged elite fearful of losing their dominant role in society.
The wavering reservists are “not patriotic,” Galit Distel Atbaryan, the information minister, said in a social media post Sunday night.
“They are not the salt of the earth. They are not Zionists. Not the best of our kind. Not the wonderful people. Not the people of Israel.”
On Monday night, Netanyahu, who served as an officer in a commando unit, gave a speech in which he warned that the actions of the reservists “threaten the very foundation of our existence.”
“There is room for protest; there is no room for refusal” of military service, Netanyahu said, standing next to far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was barred from serving in the army in the 1990s. 1990 due to concerns about his extremist views.
But some members of the government have been more conciliatory. “The situation demands that we speak, and quickly,” Gallant declared in a video.
There is also debate among the reservists themselves about whether or not to introduce politics into military service.
As reports of reservist discontent spread over the weekend, an air force reserve general, Ori Seiffert, wrote an open letter to his fellow reservists, asking them to continue serving as pilots despite opposing judicial review. .
“Like many of us, I too am very disturbed and frightened by the direction” of the government, Seiffert wrote in the letter, obtained by the Times.
But, he added, “we must maintain the power of the air force and the power of the Israel Defense Forces.”
“To my reservist brothers I say: protest and serve, serve and protest,” Seiffert wrote.
Reservists who have already chosen to limit their volunteer service said the decision had been extremely difficult. A reserve colonel from Unit 8200 – one of more than 500 cyber division reservists who signed a letter criticizing the review – said the decision had kept him up at night, and that he would quickly return to duty if war broke out.
“If we got to a situation where there was an offensive attack against Israel,” said the officer, who declined to be named for fear of security threats from Israel’s foreign enemies, “we would all be there to protect the citizens. From Israel”.
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