Israel’s judicial overhaul pits defense establishment against Netanyahu


TEL AVIV — Tensions between Israel’s citizens and their politicians are surging after thousands of military reservists issued an ultimatum over the country’s plans to weaken the judiciary, and hundreds of thousands of protesters pleaded with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was fitted with a pacemaker early Sunday morning, to halt the legislation.

Netanyahu’s emerging health crisis comes after more than 10,000 reservists from dozens of military units said they would not report for duty if the Knesset passes legislation to weaken the Supreme Court, which they say will slide their country into a dictatorship, and disintegrate their capacity and readiness to protect the country at a time when it is entrenched in ongoing, multi-front conflict zones. The Knesset is set to vote on the bill Monday.

In Jerusalem, thousands of demonstrators camped outside the Knesset and thousands more linked arms to form a human chain from the Western Wall in the Old City to the parliament, calling on lawmakers to halt the passage of the legislation without a broad consensus.

“Efforts to reach a broad agreement are continuing,” said Netanyahu in a video statement broadcast early Sunday morning, before undergoing sedation for a heart pacer implantation — during which Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the leader of the judicial overhaul, was appointed as his stand-in.

Netanyahu was hospitalized last weekend after a minor bout of dehydration, he said in a separate video statement. Israeli media reports later found that Netanyahu had fainted before that hospitalization and was fitted with a subcutaneous heart monitor.

Netanyahu’s health developments coincide with what Israel’s defense establishment says is an existential crisis.

“The IDF is in the process of tangible disintegration due to the continuation of the regime coup,” said a Sunday letter signed by members of Israel’s elite military units, including 8200, Talpiot, Shayetet 13, which specializes in counterterrorism and sabotage in land, sea and air arenas; and defensive cyber and research units.

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

More than 1,100 air force reservists made a similar announcement the day before, saying they would not serve if legislation passes that “will harm the security of the State of Israel, will cause a loss of trust and a violation of my consent to continue risking my life.”

Netanyahu’s government and its supporters say that the new legislation will “correct” democracy by allowing lawmakers the freedom to implement policies — including greater benefits for the ultra-Orthodox minority and the operational annexation of the West Bank, the land that Palestinians envision as their future state — supported by their constituencies, which they say make up Israel’s majority.

Military officials have in recent days been scrambling to strategize for the possibility of a sudden manpower shortfall, including from reservists with decades of experience, from elite units that are responsible for complex operations in the nearby West Bank and in the regional arena against Iran, Israel’s archrival.

“Without the best of our best serving in the army, we will not continue to exist as a country in our region,” said Israeli military chief Herzi Halevy in a rare statement on Sunday. He added that, despite efforts to remain on the sidelines, but “because of its intensity in Israeli society, the army got caught up in it, and the army’s cohesion has been damaged.”

“Regarding trends in Israeli society … the IDF preparedness will be damaged over time, potentially seriously,” said Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari. “Concerning trends in Israeli society … IDF preparedness over time will be damaged, possibly seriously.”

Since its founding, the IDF has relied on reserve forces to maintain its readiness. Israel’s three-part structure relies on a small corpse of professional officers and instructors to train a constantly replenished main body of young draftees — thirty months of military service is mandatory for most Israeli men; twenty four months for most Israeli women. Reservists step in for wartime operations.

“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 Tel Aviv-based 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 flyers are reservists who spend a day or two each week keeping their skills honed. Losing the several thousand flyers and senior operational commanders that have pledged to step aside if the legislation become 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. “Smalls things can still be done, but it would impair the ability to conduct major operations, of launch a strike against Iran, should that prove necessary.”

Members of Israel’s coalition, the most far-right in history, have accused the demonstrators of attempting a military coup against a democratically elected government, and vowed that the “reasonability” clause would be followed by a broader package of laws to weaken the Supreme Court.

“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,” tweeted far-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Saturday, hours after thousands of demonstrators finished a 40-mile, five day hike from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, hoisting blue and white Israeli flags, chanting “de-mo-cr-acy!”

“No apologies. Legislations,” tweeted Ben Gvir in response.

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