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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israeli reservists threaten mass resignations if judicial plan proceeds

In March, Israeli military reservists protested plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government to overhaul the judicial system. They are renewing those protests now.

By Ronen Bergman and Patrick Kingsley

At least 180 senior fighter pilots, elite commandos and cyberintelligence specialists in the Israeli military reserve have informed their commanders that they will no longer report for volunteer duty if the government proceeds with a plan to limit judicial influence by the end of the month.

About a dozen have already resigned, but hundreds more have discussed the possibility of doing so during in-person gatherings and online forums this week and are preparing to formally suspend their service in the coming days, according to interviews with 12 of those reservists and group resignation letters and messages seen by The New York Times.

Military leaders fear that this would significantly impact the capacity of the Israeli armed forces, particularly its air force, as well as tempt full-time soldiers to consider standing down, two senior defense officials said, speaking anonymously because of the volatility of the situation.

Israeli fighter squadrons are strongly reliant on reserve pilots who have regular civilian jobs but who volunteer for several days each month to train or participate in combat and reconnaissance missions. Israel’s regular strikes in Gaza and Syria, patrol missions over Israel, and surveillance missions over Lebanon and the occupied West Bank are frequently led by reserve pilots and drone operators, who often have more experience than those in the full-time forces.

Any future Israeli strikes on nuclear facilities in Iran would also be heavily dependent on reservists.

Their threats of resignation reflect the deep social rifts that have been widened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine the power of the judiciary. Netanyahu’s coalition — the most right-wing in Israeli history — seeks to enact a bill by the end of July that would reduce the ways in which the government can be overruled by the Supreme Court.

The bill is part of a wider raft of proposals that has set off the longest wave of protests in Israeli history, led business leaders to divest from Israel, created a standoff with the Biden administration and prompted widespread fears of civil war, according to several national polls.

To the government and its supporters, the measures would improve democracy by reducing the influence of unelected judges over elected lawmakers. The plan is “not the end of democracy but rather the strengthening of democracy,” Netanyahu said this past week.

The Israeli right has long seen the Supreme Court as an unaccountable bastion of the liberal elite that has restricted some of Israel’s efforts to establish settlements in the occupied West Bank and blocked certain privileges for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

But to the government’s critics, the Supreme Court is a crucial protector of a pluralist society. They fear that the government’s plan to limit the court would harm democracy by removing one of the few checks on government overreach, and potentially later allow Netanyahu to interfere in his ongoing trial for corruption — both claims that Netanyahu denies.

Many reservists are also concerned that the degrading of Israel’s judiciary might leave them more vulnerable to prosecution in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, since it might strengthen an argument, often made by critics of Israel, that the Israeli judiciary is not independent enough to hold its army to account.

The ongoing judicial overhaul is “a first and significant step on the way to a judicial coup that will lead the State of Israel toward becoming a dictatorship,” a high-ranking reservist in Unit 8200, an elite cyberintelligence unit that monitors and defends against online threats, wrote this week in a resignation message to the unit’s top commander.

“I love the State of Israel and I believe that now is the time to fight for it and for its image as a liberal democracy,” the reservist added. “Therefore, I am forced to take a step that I never thought I would have to take and to suspend my volunteering for reserve service.”

Those who have already announced their intention to resign, or who have already resigned, include fighter pilots, flying instructors, drone operators, senior hackers in Unit 8200 and senior reserve officers in Sayeret Matkal, the elite commando unit that operates behind enemy lines and that Netanyahu once served in.

At least 220 reservists in Sayeret Matkal are preparing to release a letter in the coming days announcing that they will resign from volunteer duty if the bill is passed by the end of July, according to a draft of the letter obtained by the Times.

“Unless the current legislative processes that harm the independence of the judicial system are shelved, we will not be able to continue volunteering for reserve service in the unit,” the draft said. “We are aware of the damage that may occur due to us not volunteering for the reserves in the unit, but in the current moment we have no other course of action.”

While all the reservists are still expected to serve if war were to break out, the pilots’ decision to avoid training and missions outside of wartime is still expected to dilute Israel’s military capacity. Pilots need to train regularly in order to maintain their battle readiness. If they stop training even for short periods, officials say, they will be disqualified from flying military missions until they have regained their sharpness.

Similar warnings and resignations in March played a decisive role in the government’s decision to suspend an earlier round of judicial changes. Disquiet among the reservists prompted the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, to speak out against the overhaul, a move that in turn led Netanyahu to fire him.

His dismissal set off an intense burst of street unrest and labor strikes that briefly stopped flights departing from Israel’s main airport, and ultimately led Netanyahu to freeze the legislation and later reinstate Gallant.

It is unclear whether Gallant would publicly protest the overhaul again. Asked to comment for this article, he said in a statement, “Threats of, or direct refusal to serve, harm the IDF and Israel’s security. I call upon everyone, left and right: We must leave all political discourse outside of our armed forces. We must remain united in this respect.”

In an official statement, the Israel Defense Forces played down the resignation threat, saying that the number of people who had refused to serve when called up was “very limited.” But it did not release the number of reservists who had not yet been called up but who had nevertheless formally requested their commanders to preemptively suspend their service.

And the military acknowledged that the reserves “constitute an inseparable part of the IDF’s operational capacity and the IDF’s ability to fulfill its purpose as a protector of the security of the citizens of the state of Israel.”

In private, senior defense officials are preparing for a bigger wave of public resignations in the coming days.

Around 40 reserve pilots held a private meeting last Monday with the head of the air force, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, in which they discussed the possibility of more pilots resigning, an outcome Bar strongly opposed, according to two people present.

A larger group of 350 reserve pilots met privately the following day to discuss their options and to hear from legal experts about the judicial proposals.

A constitutional law expert, Suzie Navot, briefed them on the planned bill; and a former attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, outlined how the soldiers might face greater risk of prosecution by foreign prosecutors for purported war crimes if Israel’s own judicial system was deemed to have been undermined by the government’s proposals.

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