The issue of Israel Defense Force reservists refusing to serve for political reasons again made headlines on Sunday, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoning for an “urgent” meeting the heads of Israel’s security establishment for an overview of the military’s operational readiness.
The meeting was sparked by an earlier one on Friday led by Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, who told a group of pilots and officers that the damage the country’s political turmoil is doing to military preparedness will grow “deeper and deeper as time goes by.”
Those refusing to serve are protesting against the government’s judicial reform effort. They say the plan will turn Israel into a dictatorship and that they are therefore justified in taking extreme measures, including breaking a long held, unspoken rule that politics and the military don’t mix.
Opponents say the current political situation is no excuse for overturning that understanding and that doing so undermines military cohesiveness. Once politics enters the army, they warn, there will be constant friction as there always will be some group unhappy about one or another government policy.
Some say the IDF has treated the refusal phenomenon with kid gloves and have allowed it to gain momentum by not speaking loudly enough against it.
The Israel Defense and Security Forum, a group comprising thousands of former security officers, has pulled together former chiefs-of-staff from both sides of the political spectrum to condemn refusals.
IDSF’s CEO and founder Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Avivi recently spoke with JNS.
Q: What is your message to the IDF?
A: We have been talking extensively to the army and the chief of staff. Everybody agrees: This phenomenon in which people don’t volunteer, carry out insubordination, even to a certain extent mutiny—at the end of the day, it endangers Israel. It endangers our deterrence. It endangers our readiness.
We asked a simple question. These people who are doing all of this: Who are they? Are they tragic heroes? Or are they people who’ve lost sight of basic values and are undermining the army? And we’re saying to the army: The way you’re handling this, it seems that these people are being portrayed as tragic heroes.
We think that the army should have been crystal clear: Somebody who undermines the army’s deterrence, the cohesiveness of the army—a hero he is not.
I would have expected the chief of staff from day one to say this is something we’re not willing to accept. It’s politicizing the army. Anyone who politicizes the army is doing harm. It goes completely against our values. It’s terrible and it’s hurting us.
Q: Why does the army seem to have such a hard time saying that?
A: Take a real-world example. There’s an Air Force guy who’s 61 years old. He’s been volunteering for two decades at Air Force headquarters. He’s extremely experienced. He’s somebody who has been there since the age of 18. He announces he won’t volunteer anymore. What do you say to him? The army can’t say ‘you have no values.'”
Q: Couldn’t the army show compassion one-on-one and still condemn the phenomenon in public?
A: When I was a young platoon commander taking my first steps as a leader, the first thing I learned is the difference between what happens when you stand in front of the whole platoon and what happens when you stand before one soldier. Before the group, you have to be strong and tough and clear. Before an individual, you really need to be able to speak heart-to-heart and connect. So what you’re saying is true. You can do both. You can be empathetic and show appreciation on a personal level. But you must be emphatic in front of the whole unit, or the public. You must be very clear about values.
Q: In late July, IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Daniel Hagari condemned a video making the social media rounds. The video tried to show in dramatic fashion what can happen when politics enters the military. A pilot refuses to help a soldier under fire until he declares where he stands on judicial reform. The IDF spokesman sharply attacked the video as causing division. Why did he come out against it?
A: What happened was that the same day this video was released, there was a convention of all the leading commanders of the ground forces. As part of this convention, an Air Force officer came to speak. He said, “Guys, you can trust us. We will be there for you.” Everybody started to laugh.
The chief of staff was shocked. Absolutely shocked. The ground forces were saying, “We’re not sure we can count on you.” It was devastating. And it happened, completely by chance, that this video was released at the same time. So this video looked very different through the army’s eyes than it did to a civilian.
I told the IDF spokesman that I had looked at the video. It seemed to me to be showing what might happen. And I didn’t see anything bad about it.
Q: The Air Force seems to be a focus of these refusals.
A: This almost entirely revolves around the Air Force. While the vast majority of the pilots are doing their job, flying every day, and endangering their lives, there is clearly a problem and we need to deal with it.
The ground forces would always say the Air Force is “foreign but friendly.” They were referring to the fact that it’s a very, very different culture. But now people say, “Foreign is one thing, but are you friendly?”
Q: So why so many refusals from the Air Force?
A: It’s because to join the Air Force you need to undergo an intensive sorting process. First, they pass an intelligence test. Then they arrive at the psychologist, who has his own understanding of what kind of people should be there.
The team that does the sorting has been made up of the same people for many, many years. And it seems that they’ve chosen certain kinds of people.
Religious Zionists are almost non-existent. And you have to ask yourself why is it that in the ground forces there are huge numbers of Religious Zionists in all the top units? Why in the ground forces are more than 50% of those who finish officers school Religious Zionists?
We need to revise the way pilots are chosen. To use an “in” word, we need diversity. It’s simple as that. It’s the most liberal and the most progressive thing to do—diversify.