Many tens of thousands of Israelis who support the government’s judicial reform program on Sunday condemned the refusal of some IDF reservists to report for duty.
The peaceful and socially diverse demonstration outside the Azrieli Mall in Tel Aviv, which has been the scene of near-weekly protests against the government for months, was taking place at the same time that protesters against the reform converged outside the Knesset in Jerusalem.
The Tel Aviv rally, which turned the thoroughfare into a sea of blue and white Israeli flags, came amid growing public unease over military reservists’ threat not to report for duty if the first piece of reform legislation, the so-called reasonableness bill, becomes law.
“As a former [F-16] combat pilot, I want to say to my fellow combat pilots that refusal to serve erodes the basis of democracy,” said Education Minister Yoav Kisch. “I know that there are many that think like me but to those who don’t I say, “Don’t tear the rope” [that that holds us together]. We are not talking about the destruction of the Temple or a dictatorship [if the reforms pass]”
Transport Minister Miri Regev, a reserve brigadier general and a former IDF spokeswoman, said that those who refuse to serve in the reserves should be jailed.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who predicted the bill would pass in the Knesset Monday, said he felt the pain of the opponents of the reform, comparing it to the sadness the right felt over the Oslo Accords three decades ago and the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Eve Berkatz, 39, from Tel Aviv, said, “I have never come to a demonstration before, but when they started with refusing to serve this was a red line for me because it shows they don’t care about the entire nation of Israel but for their nation of Israel.”
Leora Cohen, 31, from Tel Aviv, asked, “How can they hold the Israeli flag in one hand and in the other hand threaten that they won’t serve in the reserve service.”
Itai Meirson, 43, from Modi’in, said, “There is one contract and it is with the State of Israel. Those who refuse to serve have broken that contract.”
The protesters, who chanted, “The nation wants judicial reform,” came from across the country and included a diverse mix of secular, traditional and religious Israelis. Some of the young men in the crowd wore T-shirts that read, “Reserve duty without condition” and “Reserve duty is the best, bro” a play on a popular Hebrew phrase, while others held placards that read, “Safeguarding the army—enough of refusing to serve.”
Many of the pro-government protesters at the rally said that the High Court of Justice had become disconnected from the nation and represented the elite alone.
“The Supreme Court has made itself into a supreme government and this is the source of dictatorship, because the justices represent a small and elitist group of the public,” said Reuven Moore, 65, who traveled to the coastal city from Jerusalem for the rally.
“It’s sad because the minority cannot accept that the majority [of the public] are right-wing,” offered Aluma Ben-Simon, 33, who came from the Galilee city of Tzfat.
Many in the crowd were cognizant that the rift in the nation was peaking ahead of Tisha B’Av on Wednesday night/Thursday, during the days when Jews mourn the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem along with other calamities in Jewish history.
A huge television screen outside the mall, which was running various advertisements including for iced tea and a Cyprus resort on a stifling July evening, also showed a stand-alone commercial with the words: “Stop and talk.”
Down the street opposite the Defense Ministry on Kaplan Street, which had been closed off to traffic, vendors were selling cold water and various Israeli pretzel-bagels. An older man played the Sabbath eve song “Shalom Aleichem” (“Peace be upon you”) on his harmonica.
Army out of politics
Earlier Sunday, Israeli security officials came out against the growing threats to refuse to serve.
“The army must be out of politics, and politics must be out of the army,” said Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, who formerly served as head of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s research division.
He said that mixing the military with politics was damaging and dangerous because it signals weakness to Israel’s enemies, harms the military’s operational strength, and sets a harmful and unacceptable precedent whereby anyone who disagrees with a given government policy unilaterally decides he will not serve in the reserve forces.
Some 10,000 reservists from across the military announced Saturday night that they too would stop showing up for duty. More than 100 retired security chiefs publicly supported the growing ranks of military reservists who plan to stop reporting for duty if the reform is advanced.
Kupperwaser added that Israel was not sliding towards the “end of democracy,” as critics argue. He cited the words of President Isaac Herzog before a joint session of Congress last week that democracy was in Israel’s DNA and that the months-long protests were a sign of the vibrancy of democracy in the country.
Kupperwaser said that the media had focused on those who support the reservists’ refusal to serve in a lopsided manner despite overwhelming rejection of such a view in the public and even among opposition leaders.
“It is not difficult to see that the media is encouraging this dangerous step,” he said.
“There are things that are simply not done,” said Maj.- Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security who was formerly chief of the research division in Military Intelligence and Israel’s national security adviser.
“The ability of one group, no matter how high quality they are, to subjugate the country with their political worldview when we have just undergone five election cycles and elected this government is something extremely negative,” he said. “There is something called a majority.”
Maj.-Gen. (res) Meir Klifi, a former military secretary to two prime ministers, said, “The refusal of IDF officers to serve in the reserves is an unprecedented, dangerous and irresponsible move which hurts the IDF’s strength, its unity, the country’s deterrence and the security of the State of Israel.
“In democracies, you change the government by free and fair elections with the hand at the ballot box and not the hand that holds a weapon,” Klifi said.
“Putting a gun on the table of an elected government in order to force it to give in to military men’s demands is something dangerous and irresponsible that never happened in Israel before. It is a quiet military coup which is very close to a dictatorship,” he said, using the same term opponents of the judicial reforms have charged the government was leading the country towards.
Klifi also said that the military must remain outside of politics, asking what would happen in the future if the opposing camp refused to evacuate communities in Judea and Samaria.
“These are dangerous cracks,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi wrote in a letter to soldiers Sunday meant to address the tensions. “If we will not be a strong and cohesive military, if the best do not serve in the IDF, we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region.”