The Israel Defense Forces is attempting to strike a delicate balance amid the country’s ongoing political crisis. On the one hand, it acknowledges the inevitable fact that military personnel will have strong views on the judicial reform issue, while on the other, it insists that the army must remain above the debate.
The line the military is attempting to walk was spelled out in a speech by the IDF Chief of Staff on March 28.
At a ceremony to award 60 officers and NCOs citations for excellence, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said: “Over the past few days, quite a few people have told me: ‘Choose which side of history you want to be on.’ ”
Such calls, he noted, had come from both sides of the divide.
“And this was my answer: I have chosen. We chose,” he continued. “The moment we donned uniforms, as conscripts, as career personnel and as reservists, we chose to be on the side that protects the country. We have chosen to be the ones who enable life, prosperity—and also the right to be divided—to exist here.”
In recent weeks, the IDF has faced unprecedented challenges due to the judicial reform crisis, including a letter by 200 air force reservists announcing that they would pause their military service over the issue (800 pilots signed another letter saying they would not). The IDF experienced a similar phenomenon, though lesser in degree, during the 2005 Gaza disengagement, when some personnel announced that they’d refuse orders, and others publicly objected to government decisions.
“The chief of staff has kept saying that he expects reserve personnel to continue to report for duty, though he greatly respects their civil right to protest as individual civilians,” a defense source told JNS.
“It’s not a matter of choosing one side or the other,” the source added. “But we as an army expect everyone to keep the military and security issues out of the controversy. Protest as individuals if this is your belief, but once you get a call to report for duty, the decision to show up should be completely separate from the political story.”
(Following a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to hold off on passing the legislation, the reservists involved in such calls appear to have returned to routine.)
Halevi has been criticized by all sides over his position, with anti-government protesters condemning his call for reservists to cease their threats, on the one hand, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling on him to combat the phenomenon on the other.
The IDF has also objected to reservists naming their units during protests, as part of the same effort to keep the military out of the crisis.
IDF units comprise people from across the political spectrum—it is a peoples’ army and the views of its personnel are reflective of wider Israeli society. As a result, the IDF has been concerned that protests conducted in the name of any given unit could damage unit cohesion, threatening operational capabilities.
An additional concern has been that the political struggle would spread from the reserves to the rest of the army, including career officers, something of which there has been no sign to date.
Still, political debates have raged throughout the military. IDF commanders have been instructed to allow soldiers to discuss the issue while making it clear that threats to refuse to serve are out of bounds.
The military has consistently argued that it is above the dispute polarizing Israeli society and on the side of security.
“The message is that we serve unconditionally,” the defense source told JNS.
Halevi echoed that position in his recent speech, stating, “Excellence of companionship in the IDF means knowing how to live with division, and not involving the IDF in the [political] dialogue.”
The chief of staff also warned that “the area we live in and the threats facing us do not allow us to crack our security layer in any way, and this is truer these days than ever.”