A judicial overhaul has prompted many military reservists to avoid volunteer duty. Military leaders have privately warned that this might require scaling back operations. For weeks, PM Benjamin Netanyahu has defied critics of his plan to weaken Israel’s highest court.
The hundreds of thousands of people who have turned out for protests, the former prime ministers and defense officials, prominent American Jews and Israel’s attorney general. This way Netanyahu has plunged Israel into a constitutional crisis.
But he may not be able to ignore a groundswell of dissent from one key Israeli institution: the powerful and influential military.
A growing number of Israeli reservists have threatened to withdraw from voluntary duty in recent weeks if the far-right government that took power late last year pushes ahead with its contentious plan to increase its control over the judiciary, the military says.
The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, has told government leaders that the number of reservists reporting for duty this month fell so far that the military was on the verge of reducing the scope of certain operations.
The military high command is also concerned about the possibility of resignations from full-time soldiers. Analysts say the crisis threatens to undermine Mr. Netanyahu’s reputation as a security expert who prioritizes the safety of the country above all else.
Violence is surging in Israel and the occupied West Bank, and fears are growing of threats to Israel’s security from Iran and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
The concerns over morale in the military were at the heart of a drama on Thursday night when the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, met with Mr. Netanyahu to warn him about the effects of the turmoil within the ranks.
That intervention came before Mr. Gallant was about to speak out against the dangerous judicial overhaul plan. The military has declined to make public full statistics for the drop in reservists reporting for duty this month.
But it has confirmed that 200 reserve pilots — a significant proportion of the Israeli Air Force’s pilots, though not a majority — signed a letter on Friday saying that, in protest of the judicial proposal, they would not report for duty for the next two weeks.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied that military leaders had informed the prime minister personally of any threat to the military’s operational capacity.
But on a visit to London on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu described the wider phenomenon of reluctant reservists as a terrible danger to the State of Israel.
The unrest within the military is considered the biggest side effect of the government’s divisive plans to overhaul the judiciary.
Israel has faced growing dissent since January, when Mr. Netanyahu’s government announced plans to increase government control over who can be a judge and reduce the judiciary’s ability to strike down laws passed by Parliament.
The issue has set off one of the worst domestic crises in Israeli history, prompted concern from allies like the USA and brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets every week since the start of the year.
It has also raised tensions with the Jewish diaspora, particularly in the United States but also in Britain, where Jewish and Israeli protesters marched on Friday. The uproar has led to predictions of political violence and even civil war.
Supporters of the government say the measures will help elected lawmakers assert primacy over un-elected judges. But critics fear it will remove one of the few remaining checks on government overreach and could pave the way to an authoritarian state.
In the latest fallout from the crisis, Israel’s attorney general warned Mr. Netanyahu on Friday that he had broken the law by announcing that he would become more personally involved in his government’s efforts to make changes to the judiciary.
The attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, said Mr. Netanyahu’s announcement on Thursday breached a Supreme Court ruling from earlier in the year that said the prime minister must avoid conflicts of interest between his professional role and private interests.
Mr. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption in the same judicial system that his government is trying to change. But the drama of Mr. Netanyahu’s personal predicament now risks being overshadowed by the threats to the military’s cohesion and battlefield readiness.
The Israel Defense Forces are central to the country’s security and society. Most adult Israelis complete military service, and the institution is considered a social leveler that unifies an otherwise divided population.
It remains crucial to the stability of a country that is locked in several low-intensity conflicts, including a shadow war with Iran, and is essential to the maintenance of Israel’s 56-year occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.
When the government creates an unprecedented crisis of confidence in the reserve army, those who think that the crisis will not spill over to the regular army are wrong. The cracks are already visible, competence is compromised and deterrence is weakened.
As Israel’s internal crisis deepens, security officials say that foreign opponents and domestic extremists are growing more emboldened.
Israel’s internal intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, has detected a significant increase in the number of attempts by Jewish extremists to attack Palestinians and says the perpetrators feel empowered by the high number of extremist settlers in Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
Intelligence suggested that Israel’s main adversaries — Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two leading Palestinian militias; the Iranian government; and Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia and political movement — all seemed galvanized by Israel’s internal crisis.
The humanitarian opposition now appears to be working more closely together, hopeful that Israel is approaching collapse.
The New York Times / ABC Flash Point Israel News 2023.