In Judicial Overhaul Protests, Israel’s Soldiers Face Off against Netanyahu

REUTERS/Ilan Rosenberg
An aerial view shows tents erected in demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s judicial overhaul near the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem July 24, 2023.

TEL AVIV – Israel’s year of chaos neared a crescendo Sunday as thousands of military pilots and soldiers threatened not to report for volunteer duty if the far-right government refuses to back down from a planned vote on limiting the power of the Supreme Court. Tens of thousands of citizens filled the streets, some spending their sixth night outdoors, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was rushed to the hospital for an emergency cardiac procedure.

The 73-year-old premier was still hospitalized late Sunday after a pacemaker was successfully implanted, according to his physicians, adding to the tension and uncertainty of the unprecedented domestic crisis that has racked the country since January.

The fight over the government’s bid to overhaul the judiciary – which, according to the original plans, included curbing the top court’s oversight powers and granting coalition lawmakers more authority to appoint judges – sparked a mass backlash immediately after it was proposed by the new-far right government when it took power with a four-seat parliamentary majority.

The proposal has drawn weekly mass protests across the country, as well as searing criticism from its top security officials. Opponents of the bill say it will undo Israel’s fragile democracy and skew the balance of power in a country that has no constitution. The Supreme Court is widely seen as one of the few institutions able to rein in the power of the governing majority, uphold civil rights and enforce the rule of law.

In Jerusalem, thousands of demonstrators camped outside the Knesset building as parliamentarians slogged through hours of formal debate ahead of Monday’s scheduled vote. Thousands more protesters linked arms to form a human chain stretching more than a mile from the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City to the Knesset, calling on lawmakers to halt the bill’s passage until a consensus is reached.

David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Donald Trump, and usually an unreserved supporter of the Israeli government, made a historical connection to ancient Jerusalem when he lambasted the judicial reform bill in a tweet Sunday, comparing it to the infamous destruction of the Jewish Second Temple by the Romans: “Very bad timing.”

But Netanyahu, recovering from the medical procedure, remained defiant. “We are continuing efforts to complete the legislation,” he said in a video statement broadcast Sunday afternoon.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a key proponent of the bill, was appointed as Netanyahu’s stand-in while he was under sedation. Another key backer of the legislation, Simcha Rothman, told the Knesset on Sunday that the bill will “make Israel democratic again.”

The far-right government and its supporters say the overhaul will give conservative lawmakers greater freedom to implement policy – including more benefits for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority and a de facto annexation of the West Bank, the land that Palestinians envision as part of their future state.

In Tel Aviv, thousands of pro-government marchers gathered in a counterprotest Sunday, attempting to block a major highway. Transportation Minister Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told the gathering that any reservist who refuses to report to duty “belongs in jail,” according to Israeli media.

Netanyahu’s health scare kept him from attending security and defense meetings Sunday. The prime minister also canceled planned trips to Cyprus and Turkey, according to his office. He was previously hospitalized on July 15 after a fainting spell. Doctors said then that it was a case of dehydration, but it was revealed Sunday that they had fitted him with a subcutaneous heart monitor.

Protest organizers pledged to bring the country to a standstill if the proposed bill to limit judicial review is not paused or rewritten. Israel’s main labor federation has threatened a general strike.

But it is the standoff with reserve military officers, senior security officials and the army’s rank-and-file that poses perhaps the most serious threat to the legislation – with some warning that the divisions could weaken Israel’s preparedness in a region beset by conflict.

More than 10,000 reservists from dozens of military units said Saturday that they would not report for duty if the legislation passes. On Friday, 500 military intelligence reservists and more than 1,100 air force reservists made similar announcements.

“This is where we draw the line. We serve the kingdom, not the king,” Eyal Neve, a leader of the protest group, whose members include active-duty and former soldiers from the Israeli military’s most elite units, said in a news conference. “If you want us on your side, we who have served under right- and left-wing governments, we are calling on you to stop the legislation.”

In a rare statement Sunday, military chief Herzi Halevi warned that despite its best efforts to stay out of the debate, the army has already been damaged by the polarized landscape.

“Without the best of our best serving in the army, we will not continue to exist as a country in our region,” he said, adding that the intense divide “in Israeli society has caught the army up in it, and the army’s cohesion has been damaged.”

Since its founding, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israel’s relatively tiny national army, has relied on reserve volunteers to maintain its readiness. Its three-part structure relies on a small corps of professional officers and instructors to train a constantly replenished main body of young draftees – 32 months of military service is mandatory for most Israeli men, and 24 months for most Israeli women. Reservists step in during wartime.

“The professionals and the conscripts are there to hold to the line, but you need the reservists to win the war,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council and a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Reserve pilots in particular are central to keeping Israel on a war footing, he said, estimating that about 60 percent of air force fliers are reservists who spend a day or two each week keeping their skills honed. Losing the several thousand fliers and senior operational commanders who have pledged to step aside if the legislation becomes law would be a “body blow” to the IDF, he said.

“If they don’t have the pilots and the operational staff, their ability to function decreases immediately,” Freilich said. “Small things can still be done, but it would impair the ability to conduct major operations or launch a strike against Iran, should that prove necessary.”

For their part, coalition lawmakers have accused the demonstrators of attempting a military coup against a democratically elected government.

“There is a tremendous attempt here to blackmail the elected government and bring about total chaos where those who make the decisions are not the elected officials,” far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir wrote on Twitter on Saturday. At the same time, thousands of demonstrators were preparing for the last leg of a five-day, 40-mile hike from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, hoisting blue-and-white Israeli flags and chanting, “De-mo-cra-cy!”

Amos Davidowitz, 65, a lieutenant colonel in the army reserves who has been a soldier since 1976, was among the marchers who arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Before joining the protest near the Israeli parliament, he rested in the shade, speaking on the phone with his commander and company rabbi, discussing a reserve training session scheduled for Wednesday. Davidowitz said he and his men would attend, though they supported reservists who decided otherwise. He blamed the politicians for forcing fighters into a terrible choice.

“Ben Gvir is going to question my patriotism, as many times that I’ve been shot at, in three different wars?” he said with angry incredulity, tears in his eyes, referring to the minister’s challenges to the loyalty of protesting soldiers.

“It’s not right that they put us in this position,” he said, beginning to sob. “It’s not right, and I want someone to explain it to me.”