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PoliticsMiddle East

'Israel's army is politicized' after judiciary changes

July 25, 2023

Parts of Israel’s armed forces have turned against the right-wing government's judiciary changes. Peter Lintl, from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says this will have lasting consequences.

F16 fighter jets fly in formation  behind Israeli flags
In a recent turn, parts of Israel's security forces have taken a stance against the controversial judicial reform Image: Nir Alon/ZUMA Wire/picture alliance

Israel's ultrareligious right-wing government is pushing forward with its fundamental overhaul of the judiciary. In a final vote, the Knesset has approved the law that states that the Supreme Court can no longer rescind laws deemed "inappropriate." Until now, this was a crucial component of checks and balances in a governmental system that operates without a second parliamentary chamber and no federal division of power.

Large swaths of the population have been fighting the changes and, recently, members of the armed and secret services joined the protests. Tens of thousands of reservists from various departments are refusing to report for duty. Peter Lintl, from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) explained to DW what this means for Israel.

DW: Why is protest stemming from the ranks of the armed and security forces so unusual for Israel?

Peter Lintl: Israel's armed forces are seen as a people's army. For a long time, they were the melting pot that brought together a society consisting of people from all across the globe. And until now, the army has always stayed out of politics. Reservists always point to the informal social contract between themselves, the armed forces, and the state: They serve for the good of the state, but at the same time, they also serve to ensure that the government adheres to (civic) rights and democratic rules of engagement. Many reservists now see this social contract as having been broken, which is why they are not reporting for duty.

Who are these units, and how much weight do they carry overall in the armed forces?

In the ground forces, the number of reservists isn't too crucial. In this case, those who are important are the ones holding key positions, especially in the air force, which is highly dependent upon reservists. What's more, fighter pilots in particular must report once a week to training. If they do not, they lose their flight status.

A fighter pilot wearing a flight suit with an Israeli patch adjusts his helmet
Israeli combat pilots, like this one photographed during a German-Israeli exercise in Düren, must train regularly to maintain their flight statusImage: R4223/picture alliance

Does that mean many combat pilots might not be able to fly soon?

In a case like this, special regulations could be found. This shouldn't have massive implications on daily life as long as Israel is not embroiled in an acute crisis. But in the medium- to long-term, this can have far-reaching consequences that will only expand further if people from other key departments like security or cyber forces withdraw. That, of course, would have an impact.

A further consequence is the fact that the armed forces have now, for the time being, become politicized. That means that, should, say, a center-left government gain power, make peace with Palestinians, and withdraw illegal settlements, then right-wing reservists might refuse to serve. The army has now become politicized, and that is gap that will be hard to bridge.

An army that gets involved in political issues — will this step fundamentally change the way the government is structured?

Exactly, this kind of army politicization is unprecedented. Today, we heard that the head of the overseas intelligence service Mossad (David Barnea) apparently said that in the case of a constitutional crisis, he would be "on the right side of history" — so, on the side of the rule of law. We'll have to see exactly what that means. But that would be a remarkable statement.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanjahu (l) speaks with Mossad chief David Barnea
Mossad chief David Barnea (right) has said that he plans to be 'on the right side of history' in the event of a constitutional crisisImage: Kobi Gideon/GPO/dpa/picture alliance

Israel's Supreme Court could review the "reasonableness" clause, which greatly restricts its powers. What would happen if the Supreme Court declared the clause null and void?

Should the Supreme Court take up the suit and actually suspend the law as a constitutional amendment, then we enter a scenario where a vacuum of legitimacy and a national crisis unfold. It would be unclear which institution, the parliament or the Supreme Court, had more legitimacy.

But legal experts agree that it would be unlikely for the Supreme Court to rescind the law in this particular case.

Judicial overhaul opponents weigh their options: DW reports

If Israel does fall into a constitutional crisis, could this new politicization of the armed forces make a putsch more likely?

I don't think so. I was very surprised when I heard rumors of the statement by Mossad's head. But maybe that's just another case of refusal of duty. I cannot image a putsch in Israel like the one attempted in Turkey in 2016. The armed forces are subordinate to the parliament and the government. That's how it's always been in Israel, and there's never been any doubt about it.

The current situation is also a moment of weakness that Israel's rivals could take advantage of. Is the judicial reform creating a concrete security threat for Israel?

Should an acute conflict arise, to ensure immediate safety, I am pretty sure reservists would report back to duty.

But it's true that Iran is aware of the situation. According to reports, there are efforts by Iranian social media activists that describe themselves both as pro-government groups as well as oppositionists. They are working to aggravate the rift within Israeli society.

 A person stands in front of an Israeli police water cannon, arms outstretched, as police look on
Protesters in Israel have been fighting to halt the government — both literally and figuratively, as can be seen hereImage: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo/picture alliance

For now, the losers of this judicial reform include many well-educated liberal minds, for example from the IT sector, that contribute greatly to Israel's economic power. How real is the threat that many of these bright minds will leave the country?

It's massive! I just got back from ten days in Israel. Almost all members of the protest movement that I spoke with are already looking around. They are trying to obtain foreign passports and are thinking about where they'd like to go. If the reform is pushed through, then brain drain will follow. That will harm Israel considerably, affecting its economy, culture, technological advancement, and more.

Do you believe this process is irreversible, or can you see some opportunity to make a u-turn or find a compromise?

There might be ways to stop things from progressing. That is certainly what the protest movement is aiming for. They want to keep going, so that further parts of the judicial reform are not passed.

But even if Netanyahu recently called for compromise, nobody trusts him anymore, not even his own coalition partners. I don't really think it's possible to find any kind of meaningful compromise anymore. But we will see in the coming weeks.

David Ehl conducted the interview. This article was translated from German.