Israel army chief fears personnel walkouts over government’s legal overhaul

Thomas Helm

The National  /  March 6, 2023

Senior veterans and reservists have come out in opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s drastic judicial reforms.

The head of Israel’s army has sounded the alarm over mass walkouts by military reservists in response to the government’s plans to drastically reform the country’s judiciary.

Lt Gen Herzi Halevi told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that the prospect of increased defections in the military could harm the effectiveness of the country’s forces.

News of Lt Gen Halevi’s warning came after 37 out of 40 reserve pilots in an elite air force squadron said they would boycott a coming training session in opposition to the legal reforms.

The reservists said they would still participate if needed for operational missions.

The Squadron 69 is a vital strategic asset for the country. It operates the US-made F-15 fighter jets that were used by Israel to strike a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 and would probably play a key role in a potential conflagration with Iran, Israel’s primary enemy.

On Monday, all 10 living former heads of Israel’s air force signed an open letter to the Prime Minister and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant saying they were “trembling” about what such walkouts would mean for the country’s defence.

“From a deep knowledge of the centrality and uniqueness of the air force to the country’s national security, which you also know well, we are trembling at the consequences of these processes and to the grave and concrete danger which this represents to the national security of the state of Israel,” they said.

It is not only members of the air force sounding the alarm at government policy.

Former members of Israel’s elite special forces unit Sayeret Matkal, which Mr Netanyahu used to serve in, intensely criticized the Prime Minister on Saturday for “sacrificing the state of Israel and the people of Israel for your own interests”.

Referencing a 1976 hostage raid in which Mr Netanyahu’s brother was killed leading soldiers, the former troops said: “We were privileged to be among the handful of fighters to break into Entebbe, under our cool-headed and brave commander Yoni Netanyahu, who consciously and with open eyes sacrificed himself for the state of Israel and the people of Israel.

“It’s sad, but you, Bibi, are consciously and with open eyes sacrificing the state of Israel and the people of Israel for your own interests.”

Reservists in other key fields such as cyber security and combat engineering have also come out with similar condemnations.

Senior figures in Israeli politics are growing increasingly alarmed. On Monday, opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid said in a radio interview that he was against walkouts, but that he understood the concerns of personnel.

“I am against refusal. I don’t think it’s the way. I understand the pain, the sorrow, the dread, and the fury. I think it’s a mistake. We have one army, and it’s forbidden that there is refusal,” he said.

Senior opposition politician Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff, said on Sunday that he opposed decisions to withdraw service “no matter what”.

The new government continues to push the legal reforms despite mass public protest and international concern, saying the judiciary has too much power, has a bias against right-wing politics and gives legal officials disproportionate power to interfere with decisions made by the people’s elected representatives.

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem Correspondent at The National