Judicial coup is jeopardizing Israel’s ‘people’s army’

Judicial coup is jeopardizing Israel’s ‘people’s army’

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If there is any institution in Israel that is revered and regarded as beyond criticism, it is the Israel Defense Forces. Over the years, the ethos of the IDF as the people’s army, in which serving is not just a duty but a privilege, has never been seriously challenged. With that came the almost complete rejection of the idea of refusing military service, especially conscientious objection or refusing to execute specific missions. However, Benjamin Netanyahu and his bunch of democracy destroyers have managed to change this.
Those who refuse, either as self-confessed pacifists or as an objection to the occupation of Palestinian land and the harsh treatment of its people, have usually served a number of consecutive terms in military jail before being discharged from the army. This attitude to serving in the military has been shared almost equally between conscripts and reservists. Hence, last week’s warning to the present government by many hundreds of reservists — including senior fighter pilots, former high-ranking commanders, members of elite units and even military doctors — that they would refuse to serve if the planned judicial coup, which would make the country less democratic and way more dictatorial, should be carried out has sent tremors through Israeli society. This development is bound to have a long-term impact on relations between society and the security forces’ new attitude of less-than-unquestioning obedience.
As a product of Zionism, Israel’s raison d’etre is to be a safe haven for Jews from across the world and, to that end, developing its military power has always been regarded as paramount. Although Israel’s geopolitical position has changed dramatically over the last few decades — following the signing of peace and normalization agreements with some of its neighbors, while other potential adversaries such as Syria or Iraq are not in a position to pose any significant threat — to its strategists, the central importance of being a regional military superpower remains.
From its inception, the IDF was not just a military force but an essential component of building a cohesive Israeli society, as Jews from different parts of the world flocked to the newly established country. The military became a melting pot and a social equalizer, as 18-year-old women and men from different socioeconomic backgrounds all took part in military service, although this has been somewhat of an idealistic perception of the IDF. Furthermore, a citizen’s military service does not end with being discharged from conscript service, but continues for decades with service as an active reservist. An Israeli chief of staff, Gen. Yigael Yadin, once remarked that, in Israel, “the civilian is a soldier on 11 months’ annual leave.”
Militarily speaking, the regular army, of both conscripts and career soldiers, is regarded as too small to adequately confront the range of security challenges Israel faces, some close to home and others as distant as Iran and beyond. Hence, reserve forces, which are considerably bigger than the regular army, have become a crucial component of the country’s security configuration and deterrence mechanisms.

Reservists have declared publicly that they will not serve if they see the country continue to slide toward a dictatorship.

Yossi Mekelberg

Despite the extreme diversity of political opinions, instances of refusal to serve on political grounds have been almost negligible, even when it came to a controversial war such as the 1982 invasion of Lebanon or to being sent on oppressive missions in the West Bank and Gaza, such as during the first and second intifadas. It has always been wishful thinking to argue that politics should stop at the gates of the military base, as Israel’s military is a most significant executive arm of government. However, most soldiers, including reservists, have managed to somehow fulfill their military duties even if these have contradicted their political beliefs or, worse, clashed with their conscience.
It is the judicial vandalism being committed by the current coalition government that has irked enough reservists to prompt them to declare publicly that they will not serve if they see the country continue to slide toward a dictatorship. In one case, almost an entire squadron of reservist pilots of the most sophisticated fighter planes that might one day be needed to confront Iran’s nuclear threat has threatened to not show up for training.
This open revolt by the backbone of the Israeli military force is invigorated by retired senior IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet commanders, who are expressing their utter disgust at the transformation of a liberal democracy — as complex and problematic as it is — into a nominal democracy, in which the judiciary becomes a mere tool in the hands of politicians.
If the ethos of serving in the military to defend Israel has been sacrosanct, it has been accompanied by a very strong complementary motivation to defend its democratic character. If soldiers are asked to be prepared to sacrifice their lives, and in the process inflict great pain on other people, they would like to at least believe it is for something they regard as a just and worthy cause.
There has been a malaise for years that has now been triggered by corruption at the heart of government, from the fact that “the people’s army” is a misnomer, since the burden of military service is falling on the shoulders of a dwindling proportion of the population, as is ensuring the prosperity of the country. However, the destruction of the democratic character of Israel’s governing institutions by an administration led, for the first time in the country’s history, by a prime minister who is a defendant in a corruption trial, while several of his ministers have previous convictions for corruption and even terrorism — let alone that many of them have never served in the military yet are shamelessly ready to send others into battle — has proved to be the last straw.
Some of those currently serving in the military are also concerned that such an ultranationalist and religious-messianic government will eventually land them before the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
However, as much as one should applaud these citizens’ courage and willingness to break a taboo for what is undoubtedly a worthy cause — a cause that, one hopes will, along with protests and pressure from other quarters of society, stop the unconstitutional usurpation that is taking place — there is also the danger of further politicizing the military, which could lead, for example, to right-wing soldiers refusing to evacuate settlements or ensure that settlers abide by the law, even though the issue at hand is completely different.
On the other hand, it might also have the benefit of telling the current Israeli government, as any future one, that soldiers, especially reservists, are ready to serve their country and even die for it only if the government is committed to maintaining the democratic system and adhering to good governance that serves the entire nation, not simply its own vested interests.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.
Twitter: @YMekelberg


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