The judicial review plan of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, introduced in Januaryhas plunged the country into the worst cases domestic crisis since 1973. That crisis intensified on March 26, when Netanyahu has fired the country’s defense ministerwho – less than 24 hours before – had called on the government to postpone its plans to reform the judiciary.
The plan has sparked an unprecedented wave of controversy among Israelis, drawing hundreds of thousands of protesters a 12th week in a row across the country against the plan. Yet it is not just the persistence and scale of the protest that are evidence of the crisis. It’s who protests.
The demonstrations have brought together groups representing almost all sectors of Israeli society. But among protesters is a group of individuals rarely seen at anti-government protests in the country’s nearly 75-year history: Reservists of the Israel Defense Forces. They contain former fighter pilots, members of elite units and special forces, cyber security forces and military intelligence agencies, who announced them will not volunteer for reserve duty service when legislation is passed in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
To further demonstrate the unprecedented aspect of the reservist response, those protesting include members of the Israeli Air Force Squadron 69. three of the 40 reservist pilots announced in the squadron that they would not conduct training exercises and would instead participate in anti-government protests, claiming they would are not willing to serve in what they say would be a “dictatorial regime”..”
“We have no contract with a dictator. We would be happy to volunteer if democracy is safeguarded,” according to an open letter from the reservists.
The highly controversial justice reform plan would significantly weaken the Israeli judiciary’s oversight of the legislative and executive branches.
The plan calls for near-total control over future laws, constitutional amendments and judicial appointments to be concentrated in the hands of the ruling coalition in the Knesset. Critics and protesters say the plan undermines the 75-year delicate balance between the two the three branches of governmentends liberal democracy as they know it and pushes Israel towards autocratic rule.
Despite the growing protests, Netanyahu has defiantly pledged to press ahead the reforms by the Knesset. As the country moves closer to a constitutional showdown between the executive, legislature and judiciary, the presence of former members of elite military units at these protests is evidence that the impact of the crisis extends far beyond the domestic political arena .
Besides threatening to undermine the economy and deepen social divisions, it threatens to erode Israel’s national security and provoke a constitutional crisis that could ensnare the military as well.
“The People’s Army”
The Israeli army, known as the “IDF,” has been described for decades as the “people’s army.” That’s because young Israeli men and women, when they turn 18, are required by law to do so serve in the military. Men serve two years and eight months and women two years.
Upon completion of their regular military service, men and women are assigned to the Reserve Forces. The reserves are designed to provide reinforcement during emergencies and maintain readiness through routine training and security assignments. While the number of Israelis serving as reservists has declined over the years due to budget cuts and people finding ways to be exemptreserve military service has been an integral part of the national ethos and folklore.
The threat to the government, uttered by the protesting reservists is unprecedented. It represents a powerful step by former military and intelligence officials who pride themselves on their independence from politics and their commitment to protocol.
Nevertheless, the reservists’ view is that one unwritten agreement between those who serve and the state: they are willing to risk their lives to defend a liberal-democratic Israel. But if Israel becomes a dictatorship, this contract is void.
It is possible that other security forces such as the police or Shin Bet, the internal security agency, may take similar actions to protest against the reforms. Depending on how long these protests last, the situation could develop into an unknown security crisis with high risks of domestic instability and, as Israeli President Isaac Herzog warnedcivil war.
Defense of democracy – or insubordination?
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, on the situation on March 25, 2023, expressed deep concern that the heated political debate is infiltrating the ranks of the IDF. And that, Gallant said, could undermine and jeopardize Israel’s security at a time when the country faces external threats from Iran, Palestinian terrorism And Lebanese Hezbollah.
“The events taking place in Israeli society do not spare the Israel Defense Forces – feelings of anger, pain and disappointment are rising from all sides, with an intensity I have never encountered before,” Gallant said.
Gallant called for an immediate halt to the legal review process. Instead, he proposed a dialogue between the two sides to achieve a broadly supported reform.
Now Gallant has been fired for his comments. As a veteran of the IDF, a former Israeli diplomat and a longtime analyst of Israel’s security situationI believe the crisis poses a profound question about where the line lies between legal political activism in defense of democracy and insubordination.
The bigger question is what will happen to the military if the legislation passes in the Knesset, but if it does struck down by the Israeli Supreme Courtthe Supreme Court. Should the Netanyahu government demand that institutions such as the IDF act in violation of Supreme Court decisions, it is unclear what authority these institutions would abide by.
For example, if the Supreme Court rules that a Jewish outpost in the West Bank was built illegally and must be dismantled, but the government orders the IDF not to do so, what will the IDF commanders on the ground do?
This voltage is clearly represented by the reservists who refuse to participate in their usual duties.
In light of Gallant’s call to halt the legislative process, it is unclear whether the vote on the changes to the composition of the jury selection committee, scheduled for the week of March 26, 2023, will take place as planned.
The reservists’ active participation in the protests and their outspoken opposition to the government’s plan clearly impressed the defense minister. But at the same time, Gallant came out strongly against insubordination. Undoubtedly, the coming days will be crucial in determining the direction of Israeli democracy.
This story has been updated to reflect the resignation of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.