Anti-judicial reform protesters have turned the Israeli army into a political tool, and if the military doesn’t put a stop to it it risks losing the national consensus, says Brig. Gen. (res.) Ari Singer, former commander of the Israel Defense Forces reserves (2017-2021).
Protest leaders are conducting a “propaganda and influence operation” to topple the government, and appear willing to sacrifice the army’s reputation to do it, according to Singer. “It’s called psychological operations, or psyops, and it’s being carried out brilliantly by those leading the protests. It’s like they read the 101 manual on subversion,” he said.
The army doesn’t appear to recognize what’s happening, he continued, which is why it hasn’t adequately confronted the threat. “The army has to emphasize that it’s not a political tool. Once the army was taken hostage by the demonstrators, it should have reacted.”
Reservists opposed to judicial reform threaten to stop reporting for duty. Protest leaders have used those threats as ammunition against the government, claiming its pursuit of judicial reform risks national security.
Refusing to serve is generally regarded as unethical by Israelis, but former high-ranking officers have provided cover by issuing statements supporting “all protest actions—including the immediate suspension of volunteering.” Those threatening to stop reporting for duty also enjoy favorable media coverage, noted Singer.
Recently, the Hebrew press has been flooded with stories about potential damage to IDF readiness. The alarm prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold a meeting last week with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and other top officers on the army’s “fitness and cohesion.” Military fitness was also the topic of a confidential Aug. 16 Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting.
The army’s reluctance to speak out forcibly risks its reputation within Israeli society, according to Singer. By seeming to tolerate those threatening refusal, it appears to be taking sides in the debate, he said, adding that the Air Force has already suffered a blow to its prestige. The army has so far focused on operational fitness, saying it’s ready for battle. But Singer says that’s too narrow a view. “We’re talking about long-term motivation, or trust. Do I trust the army? You can build trust for years but lose it in days,” he said.
Singer, who began his military career in the armored corps, served 40 years in the reserves, eventually commanding it. He has since been active in the Israel Defense and Security Forum, a group comprising thousands of former security officers.
He recently spoke with JNS.
Q: Israel has witnessed the phenomenon of refusing to serve before. Is this time different?
A: There are three ways in which this time is different than anything that happened before. First, the people who are threatening refusal are protesting something that has nothing to do with the army. It’s imaginary fears. “We’re turning into a dictatorship.” If so, it’s a long way down the road. In other words, you’re using the army as a tool to express a political view.
Before, when someone refused to serve it was because the army was doing X, Y or Z. In the First Intifada, or in southern Lebanon, you were protesting directly how the army was behaving. With the disengagement [from the Gaza Strip in 2005], that was something which actually happened. You can argue the point, but they thought that they were participating in something illegal—the eviction of Jews from their homes.
Second, [this time around] there are many retired generals who condone, understand, agree, even preach refusal. And that’s something which is unethical. I’m putting it delicately because it can almost be considered a revolt. In the past, there were always one or two. Here, you have previous chiefs of staff who have come out and explicitly said it’s correct to refuse to serve. It’s something which is unique.
Third is the coverage by the media. It’s actually favorable. It’s feeding the fire, making a much bigger deal of the refusals than is really [merited]. What’s actually happening is minimal.
Q: Are those refusing to serve breaking Israeli law?
A: That’s not the question. The question is: Is this ethical? Once you volunteer, you’re given a seat. It could be in a tank. It could be a seat in the cockpit, or at some headquarters. You’re expected to be able to fulfill your responsibilities. It’s unethical to then throw off your responsibility. You’re refusing your position, which means if a war breaks out, your unit will not be fit. You’re harming your unit and endangering Israeli society. And it’s irrelevant in my eyes whether I can court martial you or not.
But you should only get to choose not to volunteer once. You lose your opportunity to serve your country. There’s no way back. I don’t need to court-martial you.
Q: How should the army handle this phenomenon? And not become a political football?
A: The army has to have a two-pronged response. One is internal. That I think they’re doing. When a military officer starts to question whether or not he’s on the side of democracy, he gets shell shock. It’s traumatic and you have to deal with this trauma. They’re good people, they’re just mixed up. I would try to isolate the army from the bad atmosphere, the storm that’s outside. Second, I would build an ethical discourse using the army code of ethics.
As for those active reserve soldiers who actually instigate their comrades to refuse to serve, they should be thrown out.
The second prong is outwards, toward Israeli society. That they’re not doing it all; it’s a big mistake. They’re in the middle of a propaganda war with a segment of their own society, but they have to realize it. Once they decide that it’s a by-the-book psychological operation by people trying to overthrow the government, then they’ll understand that they need their own influence operation. It sounds terrible, but they have the tools to deal with it.
The media is against them so it’s a tough job, but the army’s built for tough jobs. I don’t expect the army to go and capture Channel 13 and have someone presenting the news in an army uniform. This isn’t North Korea. But you have to realize the impact and harm these ex-generals are doing. They’re creating an alternative chain of command and influencing many people. One person from Achim L’Neshek [“Brothers in Arms,” an anti-judicial reform group] was told the chief of staff opposes what he’s doing and he said, “I have four previous chiefs-of-staff who told me to do A, B and C. It’s four against one.” The army doesn’t work like that. And down the road that can have serious repercussions.
Q: Why does the army seem hesitant to deal with this?
A: The truth is I don’t know why. They’re afraid to deal with society. They don’t view civil-military relations as their core job. Their job is to fight the bad guys. But civil-military relations, especially now in this new world, means fighting over legitimacy, fighting over the narrative, fighting over everything in the media. Once we talked about the “battlefield.” That’s not the term we use anymore. The term we use is “battlespace.” There are many more dimensions. Some are actual dimensions. Some are virtual dimensions, like information warfare.
Q: Should the politicians tell the army what to do?
A: No, the army needs to deal with it. They can’t allow themselves to become a tool for either side. The Israeli army enjoys a consensus. They have an approval rate higher than anything else in the country, more than the judicial system and, of course, more than the political system, and more than the police.
The reserves are the only place where people from all parts of the mosaic that makes up Israeli society serve together. They become very good friends. It’s common that you can have a person who says, “I hate lefties but the lefties in my unit are the best people.” Same thing on the opposite side.
In some of these units, the protests were a blessing because they re-established the covenant—not the social contract, the covenant—which is much more powerful. You’ll hear things like: “While the storm raged outside, our unit was one for each other,” or “We did a tour of duty and everybody came regardless of what they think about the judicial reform, or constitutional revolution.” They come out stronger than before, and if Israeli society handles this correctly, it can also come out stronger.
Most of the people who are leading these protests are living in a very closed environment. They think that they’re in the majority. We’re in the middle of drafting. They [the IDF] draft three times a year, and boys and girls are going to combat units. There have been no problems filling the ranks. It shows that the average Israeli who is 18 years old and has to go to the army knows right from wrong. They’re not moved by this at all. Sometimes they’re smarter and have a healthier intuition than all these intelligent generals preaching refusal.