Will the IDF reservists crisis harm its ability to keep Israel safe?

MILITARY AFFAIRS: Two retired IDF generals give their opinion on the IDF's handling of threats by reserve soldiers to not show up for service.

 SOLDIERS TAKE PART in an operation west of Nablus earlier this week. (photo credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)
SOLDIERS TAKE PART in an operation west of Nablus earlier this week.
(photo credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)

Ramadan is just over the horizon, starting the middle of next week, just as the terror wave in Israel has increased once again.

At the same time, the Knesset’s April 2 recess is bearing down on the country as a potential judgment day in the giant conflagration over the government’s judicial overhaul policy.

The Jerusalem Post spoke to multiple top former IDF officials representing some different views on what has happened and should happen regarding the impact of the judicial overhaul debate on the reserves and the country’s security and how everything will pan out.

A pessimistic forecast

The most pessimistic of the officials was Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Ilan Paz, a former head of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria and former deputy chief of the Shayetet 13 reconnaissance unit.

He warned that “if the government continues to race on with the judicial revolution and to change us into a nondemocratic state, then there won’t be IDF reservists in many units, not in the special forces and not in the vast majority of the combat fighters. And the more elite the unit, the bigger the issue. If we are not a democracy, people will stop volunteering.”

 MILITARY RESERVISTS, on a three-day walk to Jerusalem, hold flags as they block the main highway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv yesterday in protest against the government’s proposed judicial reforms.  (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN) MILITARY RESERVISTS, on a three-day walk to Jerusalem, hold flags as they block the main highway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv yesterday in protest against the government’s proposed judicial reforms. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Asked about how the reservists crisis would impact security, he said, “What is the significance to Israel’s security capabilities? A complete disaster.”

Referring to the compromise promoted by President Isaac Herzog, Paz said, “I don’t think he can end the protests. The protests won’t accept anything other than a complete cancellation” of the judicial overhaul, as opposed to cosmetic changes.

“I do not see the compromise of the president getting there, so it is not relevant,” said Paz.

Moreover, he stated, “There won’t be a compromise. The prime minister is not the kind of person who agrees to a compromise. There are specific consequences for the coalition, and for Netanyahu personally,” which are motivation to ensure that the maximal judicial overhaul passes.

He said that what Netanyahu demands for his personal criminal issues “the protesters cannot accept for sure. We are on the edge of a constitutional crisis within a few weeks."

“The government has “created a crisis of trust that there has never been with the IDF among the reserves,” he said.

Next, he said that if there is a conflict between the government and the High Court, “the IDF chief, the Shin Bet chief and the police chief will all stand by the High Court.”

Regarding dealing with the escalating terrorism in the West Bank, especially with Ramadan starting next week, Paz said that the judicial overhaul could be dangerous because “most of the special forces will not volunteer. This needs to be explained to the prime minister and the defense minister.”

He said Israel could face more terrorism from the West Bank and more attacks on the borders, with many of Israel’s enemies choosing to test whether its security forces are weaker now.

Slightly more hopeful tones

FORMER IDF Maj.-Gen. (ret.) and OC Central Command Gadi Shamni was also highly critical of Netanyahu and extremely concerned, but somewhat more hopeful than Paz.

He said that IDF reservists threatening to strike from pilot combat units, Intelligence Corps Unit 8200, Maglan special forces and others had “raised a red flag to the government. They raised the alarm. There still has not been a situation where a unit didn’t show up for reserve duty. But they are saying that if this [the judicial overhaul] continues, we will have a problem.

“Lots of people attacked them, but I think it was simply that they presented their views. They are part of Israeli society,” said Shamni.

“The percentage of the people who serve the state” in the IDF reserves “is a tiny percentage,” estimated by surveys at around only 1.5% of the whole population. “They come for their unit, their comrades in arms and for the state.”

However, he said that, “when a trend like this is evolving, they think maybe they will get an order from above which is problematic, which is on the fence of being legal or which is clearly illegal or which is even grossly illegal.

“People should take this seriously. It is an enormous mistake the way that many politicians took this, and injected the IDF into a political debate,” he stated.

He said they should have said, “‘We understand there are concerns. But no, they went straight into attack mode. Some ministers let themselves fly off the handle. There is no word for it other than, maybe, shameful.”

Asked what he thought about Defense Minister and Likud MK Yoav Gallant’s pushing back at other Likud ministers on behalf of the reservists and whether Gallant had defended the reservists strongly enough, he said Gallant “is in a different position. He is obligated to really do a lot. He cannot let the IDF be thrust into politics. And he must show that orders he issues are not based on politics, but, rather, only based on defense considerations.

“All of the defense ministers have known how to ensure this. If he acts wisely, he will not get into a chaotic dispute, a dispute that would cause more turbulence,” according to Shamni.

Further, he said Gallant’s action “should be directed inward. He should speak to the commanders and less to the outside world. If things get worse, then he will need to act to keep the IDF out of the eye of the storm.”

Regarding National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s impact on the police, including the Border Police, which is heavily involved in handling West Bank Palestinian terrorism, he said, “The situation is much graver” than with Gallant.

Shamni warned that Ben-Gvir is swaying some of the top police officials to start acting in a political manner. “This person calls himself national security minister, and he doesn’t know what all of the key components of national security are.”

He was questioned about how IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi and IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar are handling the reservists’ striking crisis. Bar especially stirred up significant controversy when he suspended an IDF reservist colonel and high-level pilot commander for threatening striking activities, only to back off shortly after, saying there had been a miscommunication.

Shamni said, “maybe Bar felt pressured from criticism that he was not acting [to contain the IDF air force reserves’ striking threats] that he needed to act more drastically. Maybe he made a mistake. It is good, then, that he fixed it quickly. This shows the quality of a person. Even if he made a mistake, he fixed it and did not try to double down.”

Despite the controversy and being in favor of reservists serving, Shamni said the striking threats may have succeeded.

“I still think it worked – it was good the reserves said what they said and put it out in the public sphere. They hinted what will be if” the government blazes forward with the judicial overhaul.

“It is good that this happened. It also had much more of an influence [on pressing the government to compromise] than everything else. The IDF is the only place where there is still something large to unite all of Israel. Or maybe not everyone, but it is still the largest uniter.”

At the same time, he expressed concern that he was “still not sure if this will influence [the government] as needed, because the government is still running forward without thinking about anything, going to extremes which are very dangerous.”

Honing in on the impact of the IDF reservist strike on handling West Bank terrorism, he said “the violence did not start two months ago; it has been a full year of escalation. Now the potential for escalation is even much bigger because of the circumstances,” including provocative statements by Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

He was also especially concerned about the impact of Ramadan.

Shamni said the Border Police would still listen to IDF commanders and not to Ben-Gvir, and that the current debate would probably not get to the point where IDF units in the West Bank would be less effective.

However, he warned that if the government continues to actually pass the judicial overhaul into law, there could be “bigger problems.”

If there is a constitutional crisis between the High Court of Justice and the government, he predicted “the IDF chief and all the other security chiefs will follow the High Court. The High Court sets what is the law. The IDF can’t carry out illegal orders, let alone something that is grossly illegal.

“Even something that is borderline illegal, the IDF is obligated not to do it. When I was the military secretary to the prime minister, sometimes things happened that didn’t get out to the public. Politicians sometimes issue orders that are against the law, and the head of the Shin Bet or the Mossad told them, ‘No, we can’t do it, because it is against the law.’”