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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Back from war, reserve soldiers set their sights on Israel’s politics as usual

Far-right Israelis demonstrate in front of the Israeli parliament in opposition to a possible cease-fire agreement with Hamas, in Jerusalem, Feb. 8, 2024. Inspired by the unity they experienced in the military, thousands of reservists returning from the front line in the Gaza Strip are organizing for political change. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

By Isabel Kershner

Gathered this month around a campfire on the edge of a forest in central Israel, the soldiers planned their next mission: saving their deeply divided country from itself.

Like many of the thousands of Israeli reservists called to fight in the Gaza Strip, the soldiers left for war amid a sudden surge of national unity after the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel.

But as the military has withdrawn soldiers from Gaza in recent weeks and the troops have returned home, they have found their country less like it was after Oct. 7 and more like it was before: torn by divisive politics and culture clashes.

Now, as these bitter divisions reemerge, disillusioned reservists are at the vanguard of movements demanding a political reset, seeking unity and repudiating what many view as extreme polarization.

“I first came out in December and was shocked to see that nothing had changed,” said David Sherez, a special forces commander and startup entrepreneur, on leaving his base near Gaza.

Sherez, one of the soldiers who gathered around the campfire in the woods, is a founding member of Tikun 2024, a new nonpartisan organization led by reservists intent on preserving the spirit of cooperation brought on by the war.

“You put on the news and look at social media, and it’s as if Oct. 7 didn’t happen,” Sherez said. “Everyone needs to do some soul-searching.”

Members of the small but rapidly growing movement cited contentious government moves that have divided the country, including a proposed overhaul of the judiciary, talk of resettling Gaza, criticism of the families of hostages who have called for a cease-fire and a proposed budget that benefits the far-right and ultra-Orthodox fringes at the expense of the national economy.

Israel’s military, in which service is mandatory for most citizens, has always been the country’s great equalizer and uniter, at least for those who are drafted; most Arab and ultra-Orthodox citizens do not serve. The members of Tikun 2024 say they want civilian Israel to reflect the comradeship of its military, where units and tank crews are made up of right-wingers and left-wingers, religious and secular Jews, Bedouins and Druze, settlers from the occupied West Bank and high-tech entrepreneurs from Tel Aviv.

The reservists who make up the leadership of Tikun 2024 are a politically diverse group. (Tikun is the Hebrew word for correction or repair.) Rather than simply calling for immediate elections, which many Israelis would interpret as an attempt to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they have instead called on the country’s main political parties to form an emergency unity government with Netanyahu, for now, and agree on a date for elections by the end of the year.

Only a unity government, they say, can tackle the most challenging issues facing Israel’s future, including the fate of the occupied territories, where the Palestinians and much of the world envisage the establishment of a future Palestinian state.

The group, established only a month ago and fueled by crowdfunding, has quickly gained traction. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum and representatives of competing sectors of Israeli society have met with the reservists — sometimes in the woods and around the campfire.

On one night, Tikun 2024 leaders met with Shikma Bressler, the face of the prewar protests that opposed a hotly disputed government plan for a judicial overhaul.

The next night, in the same spot, they met with Simcha Rothman, a hard-line lawmaker who was a driving force behind the judicial plan, which was put on hold at the start of the war.

Israel has a tradition of reservists returning home from war to lead influential movements for change. One reserve captain, Moti Ashkenazi, began a lone protest a few months after the 1973 war. His movement grew, eventually pressing Golda Meir, the prime minister at the time, to resign in April 1974. Leveraging their status as patriots willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, reservists also played crucial roles in protest movements after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s and after the second Lebanon war in 2006.

Already, thousands of Tikun 2024 supporters are connected via WhatsApp groups, and a recent conference organized in only four days drew about 250 people to Jerusalem from across the country.

Tikun 2024, the soldiers say, is not intended to become a political party. Nevertheless, some of its leaders have not ruled out running for office.

“We are calling for new blood,” said Yitzhaki Glick, 38, a special forces commander and lawyer who grew up in a settlement, was educated at prominent religious-Zionist institutions and used to work developing new settlements. “We believe the people in the system today aren’t up to it.”

Glick, who now lives in Mazkeret Batya, in central Israel, said the first time he met Israelis from different backgrounds was during his obligatory military service. The strife surrounding the judicial overhaul led him to believe that history was repeating itself, he said, and he feared that as in antiquity, internal divisions would cause the country to break up.

Part of the group’s momentum is driven by a growing desire for national unity and fatigue over politics as usual. The trend is reflected in opinion polls showing a leap in support for a centrist party led by Benny Gantz, a former military chief, at the expense of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.

“We have to fight the division,” said Shoham Nave, 26, a reserve soldier and student who was called up Oct. 8. “This is a war of no choice — at the front and at home.”

After nearly five months of war, more than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to health officials in Gaza, stirring international outrage. More than 260 Israeli soldiers have been killed since Israel began its ground invasion in late October, according to the Israeli authorities, in addition to more than 300 soldiers who were among the 1,200 people killed in the Hamas-led cross-border attacks Oct. 7.

In the tumultuous months before Oct. 7, reserve soldiers played a key role in the anti-government protests under the umbrella of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a grassroots organization. Thousands of its members threatened to stop showing up for reserve duty, arguing that the judicial plan endangered the democracy they had signed up to defend.

Many Israelis saw that refusal as the unforgivable crossing of a red line that made Israel look weak in the eyes of its enemies.

Yet the moment Israel came under attack, Brothers and Sisters in Arms called on all reserve soldiers to report for duty and mobilized an enormous civilian volunteer effort to support Israelis affected by the war.

Now, after months at the center of the political storm, that group is also calling for new elections and national unity.

“We all learned a lesson,” said Eyal Naveh, 48, a leader of the organization. “We don’t want to go back to the polarizing discourse of trampling on one another.” He said his group was also talking to Israelis across the social and political spectrum, including the ultra-Orthodox community.

“In the end,” he said, “we all say it’s time to act in consensus.”

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