The IDF is being dragged into Israel’s political crisis

The army should be permitted to concentrate on security threats, not domestic controversy.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (second from left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant near the border with Lebanon, March 16, 2023. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (second from left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant near the border with Lebanon, March 16, 2023. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Eitan Dangot

When the new IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi took over from his predecessor Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, he didn’t anticipate finding himself in his current predicament. He was sure he’d be able to concentrate on two primary objectives: Identifying the main security dangers to Israel and crafting a vision for Israel’s response. He also expected to be busy with ethical and operational messaging to the IDF’s branches and commanders.

Usually, a chief of staff oversees extensive new plans to improve IDF readiness. In this case, Halevi is focused first and foremost on the Iranian threat. It is also fair to assume that he was preparing to deal with challenges to the “people’s army” model and find new ways of keeping career officers, commanders, operational and technical staff, and NCOs in their positions, as well as boosting the number of recruits from the Israeli periphery into technological units.

Instead of all that, within just two months of Halevi’s appointment, a judicial reform program and a national crisis have thrust him into the role of a military commander navigating a national domestic crisis.

The main issues that Halevi wanted to deal with have been pushed to the side, as opponents and supporters of the judicial reform program focus on the domestic battle, which increasingly threatens to drag in the military. A refusal by reservists to serve if the judicial reform passes is a red warning light, and there are also concerns about disruptions to service by conscripts who object to the judicial reform.

The chief of staff does not want to tackle these issues. They interfere with his main role of identifying and preparing for defense threats against the State of Israel, which are growing more serious. Yet Halevi finds himself having to deal with letters to IDF commanders from reservists in strategic units declaring they will not be reporting for duty in the middle of a socio-political storm.

Such letters, sent by reservists from units that have a significant military history and vital future role in achieving IDF goals, have triggered replies from many politicians, some of whom had no prior military experience or only a brief period of IDF duty.

Halevi is wisely making every effort to avoid political declarations and keep the flames of political dispute low in the military and prevent them from spreading further. But despite those efforts, a significant change has occurred over recent weeks. The conversation has changed. It has evolved into a deep social and national argument that incorporates numerous sectors and is far broader than a dispute over democratic values.

Halevi, who had previously avoided making any public statement on the subject, joined forces with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant after realizing that his personal involvement will have a significant impact.

In response to letters written by former IAF pilots, as well as by reservists with illustrious combat histories in intelligence, technology, ground warfare, elite forces and air defense, Halevi began speaking out publicly. He spoke to members of various protest groups in the reserves, outlining his plans for not only resolving this immediate crisis, but also how to handle additional problems that could arise during his tenure and the future of the IDF.

Halevi recognized that the processes he is now seeing didn’t begin during the current political crisis. Disunity within the IDF has been brewing for years. A significant number of soldiers are graduates of religious seminaries who volunteer for combat service in the ground forces, and some of them have a far-right political orientation. Already during the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, soldiers with ties to the evacuees discussed the possibility of refusing to serve.

The chief of staff must take all necessary measures to resolve the issue and move quickly to exclude the IDF from any further political discussions. He must be firm with several irresponsible individuals who are calling for refusal to show up for service immediately, while expressing greater understanding for others who are concerned about what may come next.

Halevi prefers to conduct a discreet and quiet conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government over these issues, but in this dialogue, it is vital that he and the other defense chiefs voice their opinions with as much force and courage as they displayed on the battlefield.

A discussion like this can jeopardize the chief of staff’s standing with lawmakers, but it is still necessary for someone in his position to help preserve democracy.

Halevi’s troubles don’t end there. He has also had to watch coalition agreements grant unprecedented and confusing power to the new position of Junior Minister in the Defense Ministry occupied by Bezalel Smotrich. From the ministry, Smotrich, who is also Israel’s finance minister, can interfere with the IDF’s Civil Administration, which runs Israeli civilian policies in the West Bank.

Halevi also had to witness the granting of power, at least in theory, over Border Police in Judea and Samaria to the new National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

If these ministers are allowed to implement their new powers in this way, it would be detrimental to the IDF’s ability to work in a unified, coordinated manner, especially for IDF Central Command in Judea and Samaria.

Domestic strife has harmed Israel’s readiness against the Iranian threat. Iran has enriched uranium almost to the 90% military-grade level. This is a warning siren. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is building up its arsenal.

As we approach the beginning of Ramadan, an explosive time in the Palestinian arena, the chief of staff will continue to oversee the campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, build up Israeli war readiness, increase cooperation with the U.S. military regarding the potential need to confront Iran militarily, and actively contribute to Israeli resilience in the face of a potential escalation in the Palestinian arena or within Israel by Arab Israeli extremists.

It would be appropriate for Netanyahu to allow the IDF brass and security forces to concentrate and mobilize all their professional and command energies against the enemy at this time, rather than drag them into complicated situations that put them in the spotlight against their will and hinder their ability to perform their roles effectively.

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Eitan Dangot is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute. He concluded his extensive career as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) in 2014.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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