None of the anti-judicial reform protests that have roiled Israel in recent weeks have been so worrisome as Israeli soldiers’ refusal to serve. The most dramatic example was a squadron of over 30 F-15 reserve pilots who declared last week that they wouldn’t show up for exercises. They eventually backed down and agreed to show up to base (not to drill, to talk).
Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Avivi, CEO and founder of the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF), a group comprising thousands of former security officers, told JNS that the refusal to serve “poses an existential danger. If there is one thing that unites us all, it’s the army.”
“The IDF is not a professional army but an army of the people, where everyone sends their sons and daughters to serve. People need to set politics aside when they don their uniforms. When people bring politics into their units, which is what’s happening now, it breaks apart the very foundation that enables our army to function, because we will always have governments pushing policies that some people won’t agree with,” he said.
“There were times when the government did things that I, and everyone who was a part of our group, IDSF, felt was against our values. But it never crossed our minds even for one second to involve the army,” he continued. “Two years ago, there was a government that basically handed the keys to the Muslim Brotherhood. For many, that went 100% against the most basic principles of Zionism. Yet, they didn’t pull the army into it. You cannot have an army where people say that if the government doesn’t do what I want, I won’t serve. Today, it will be judicial reform. Tomorrow, it will be removal of settlements.”
Avivi, along with other former high-ranking officers, including former IDF chiefs-of-staff identified with both sides of the political spectrum, signed a March 8 letter which appeared as a full-page ad in Israeli newspapers, warning of the dangers of “dissent and strife” trickling into army units.
The letter read in part: “We, former Lieutenant and Major Generals from the entire spectrum of Israeli society, in a bipartisan effort, call upon everyone to unite. We cannot allow politics to tear apart the IDF. We fought for our country for many decades and commanded regular and reserve units. Our service was never conditioned on political platforms.”
A second letter, a separate initiative, signed by senior commanders and over 1,600 reserve soldiers and addressed to IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi is also circulating. It says: “An extremist minority is attempting to force its political positions upon others using illegitimate refusal to serve which has no place in the Israel Defense Forces.”
What Israel is seeing now is “unprecedented” in that “you have former prime ministers, former chiefs-of-staff telling soldiers to disobey,” said Avivi, referring to former IDF chiefs-of-staff Ehud Barak and Dan Halutz. (Barak said it would be acceptable to defy orders from the Netanyahu government. Halutz said troops wouldn’t agree to become “mercenaries for a dictator.”)
IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, who served as commander of Israel’s northern region, commander of the IDF Colleges and in other senior IDF positions, and who is also a member of IDSF, told JNS that there have been past examples of soldiers refusing to serve, but they were always on the fringes—young kids, pacifists, extreme leftists.
The first time Israeli society was shaken by refusals was during the First Lebanon War in 1982, “And even those cases didn’t reach the level of what could be called refusals, and that includes Eli Geva,” said Hacohen, referring to the well-known case of a promising young colonel who decided to remove himself from his position rather than enter a highly populated civilian area like Beirut.
The problem was that the government hadn’t prepared the nation for war, Hacohen said, adding that additional tension resulted from the fact that most of the high-ranking officers, brigade commanders and above, were members of the Labor Party, while the government was right wing, with Menachem Begin as premier and Ariel Sharon, “who was thought of as a warmonger,” serving as defense minister, said Hacohen.
However, there are several important differences between the situation in 1982 and now, he continued.
“In 1982, people said they were against the war, but they didn’t arrive to the point where they said, ‘Because you need us, we demand that the government be replaced.’ They didn’t say, ‘The government is illegitimate.’ What is happening now is a process leading towards a near-military coup. They’re saying, ‘You need us, so do what we tell you; otherwise, we won’t be here.’ In ’82, we didn’t see this type of extortion,” said Hacohen.
It’s no accident that those reservists who are refusing are pilots or in high-tech units, he said; they’re leveraging their value to pressure the army and the government.
“If they were regular soldiers, the army would simply have said, ‘Goodbye, thank you, we don’t need you.’ The army may have even put them in jail,” said Hacohen. However, he explained, it’s not so easy to do that with pilots, in whom the army has invested years of training.
The attitude of these elite officers reflects a broader societal change, a polarization, said Hacohen.
“We’re seeing a confrontation which has developed between a very successful group in Israel, one that has studied at the best schools in Europe and America, while at the same time growing distant from its Jewish roots,” and the more traditional, religious Israelis, he said. The trend in Israel favors the latter, and the elite view the high birthrate of the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, as a demographic threat “and they are seized with fear. It’s more than fear. It’s obsessive, pathological,” said Hacohen.
The reaction of this enormously wealthy group, comprising high-tech entrepreneurs, businesspeople and scientists who credit themselves with Israel’s financial success and high status in the world, is identical to that of a husband who tells his wife that he’s the provider who brings her money and status and without him she’s nothing, he added.
“This is their attitude. It’s very patronizing.”
Pilots and members of elite units who are refusing to serve share this worldview, he said.
Regardless of their motives, it’s clear that there has been a shift in Israeli society. For example, when a group of 100 soldiers in the reserves sent a letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin in August 1978 declaring that they wouldn’t defend Israeli settlements in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip because they believed the government’s policy was “erroneous, misguided, and fraudulent,” even the far-left Peace Now distanced itself from them.
Hacohen stresses that the answer to refusals isn’t to send in the military police to cart the offenders off to jail.
“You need to create a system of mutual commitment and speak with them,” he said.
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi is handling the situation well, as is Israeli Air Force Commander Tomer Bar, who did the right thing by allowing IAF Col. Galad Peled to return to service after initially suspending him, said Hacohen. Bar reinstated Peled after meeting him on Oct. 10. Peled apologized, said he doesn’t encourage refusals (he had been accused of doing so) and would work to prevent any such calls in the future.
When it comes to the army, laws can only work to a limited degree. A law can call someone up to the army, but it can’t fill him with dedication or fighting spirit, said Hacohen.
“The pilots and others like them cannot be ignored. We need to address their plight because in the end the readiness of everyone to participate in the security effort for the State of Israel doesn’t arise from a formal obligation,” he said.
“What is important to me is to have a united voice that tells the people of Israel—many of whom are now anxious, as with no army, there’s no existence—that there is a group strong enough, large enough and important enough that stands strong to preserve this great thing called the Israel Defense Forces.”