Israeli air chief warns of security threat from judicial reform crisis

Maayan Lubell

Reuters  /  July 28, 2023

JERUSALEM – Israel’s air force chief on Friday warned that the country’s enemies may exploit its ongoing political crisis, as members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party voiced impatience with the embattled leader’s stubborn pursuit of judicial reforms.

Major-General Tomer Bar said his forces needed to remain “vigilant and prepared” after parliament on Monday passed the first of Netanyahu’s widely contested changes, despite nationwide protests and misgivings from the White House.

“It is possible that at a time like this they (Israel’s enemies) will try to test the frontiers, our cohesion and our alertness,” Bar said in an address to his forces, according to a statement released on Friday. He did not elaborate.

The overhaul pursued by Netanyahu and his right-wing government has sparked a seven-month crisis, spurring unprecedented protests, opening up a deep social divide and shaking the commitment to call-up duty of some army reservists.

Protesters accuse Netanyahu of working to weaken the courts’ independence even as he argues his innocence in a graft trial. One of their leaders, Eran Schwartz, said demonstrations would continue on Saturday.

As the crisis escalated following Monday’s vote, Israel’s Ynet news said Netanyahu received at least four letters from Military Intelligence warning of serious security ramifications arising from the judicial overhaul crisis.

According to the report, senior intelligence officials said Israel’s enemies, particularly Iran and its heavily armed proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, view the crisis as a low point in the country’s history.

A spokesperson for Netanyahu declined comment.

In a series of interviews to U.S. broadcasters, he defended the new law which removes the Supreme Court’s authority to void what it deems “unreasonable” decisions by government and ministers and played down any impact on security.


However, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee head Yuli Edelstein added his voice on Friday to a small but growing chorus of Netanyahu’s Likud party members voicing displeasure with the premier’s Monday move, which some critics have described as caving in to the hard-liners in his coalition.

“I admit to mistakes,” in how Monday’s vote was handled, Edelstein told N12 Meet the Press in an excerpt of an interview aired on Friday. “I have no substantial qualms about the law I voted for (on Monday) but lessons for the future must be learnt,” he said.

Fellow Likud member and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter said on Facebook that “there are ‘bullies’ endangering the state by dragging (it) through extremist legislation.”

Far-right police minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has called for more judicial legislation, appeared to respond to Likud criticisms on the X social platform, formerly known as Twitter: “Perhaps there are some who have forgotten … the people voted in the right-wing.”

Netanyahu made his case in several interviews to U.S. media late on Thursday.

Speaking to ABC News, Netanyahu said the amendment to one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which function as a quasi-constitution, was “a minor correction” to an “activist” court. Descriptions of the reform as the end of Israeli democracy are “silly,” he said.

On CNN, Netanyahu sidestepped a question on whether he would obey a potential Supreme Court ruling quashing Monday’s amendment. Opposition leader Benny Gantz said Netanyahu would be “implementing a judicial coup” if he failed to adhere to a ruling by the court.

Netanyahu later released a statement in which he said: “”Israel’s governments have always respected the court’s decisions.”


A poll conducted by Maariv, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, found that 58% of Israelis feared civil war, and 36% thought the right thing to do is for government to stop the judiciary legislation immediately, compared to 22% who said it should be promoted unilaterally.

Protesters say growing numbers of military reservists have decided to stop serving to express their opposition to the overhaul. Netanyahu in an interview with FOX News dismissed their impact on military readiness.

The military has acknowledged an increase in requests to abstain from service, and said that damage would be done gradually if the no-shows proved protracted.

Political watchdog groups have appealed to the Supreme Court to strike down the new law, paving the way to a showdown among branches of government when it hears the arguments in September.

Israel’s democratic foundations are relatively fragile and the Supreme Court is seen as crucial for protecting civil rights and the rule of law. The country has no constitution, the government holds a 64-56 majority in the one-chamber Knesset and the president’s office is largely ceremonial.

Netanyahu says the changes will balance government branches. He casts the protests as a bid to thwart his democratic mandate.

But his plans have hit the economy, triggering foreign investor flight.

The judicial reform drive, along with an expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied land where Palestinians seek to establish a state, have also weighed on relations with Israel’s most important ally the United States.

Reporting by Henriette Chacar and Maayan Lubell; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Tomasz Janowski, John Stonestreet and Conor Humphries