The State of the State of Israel: A Series.
Part I: The Vote That Changed Israel Forever
The Vote. Before
Monday, July 23. Mid-afternoon. I was stuck in standstill traffic between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A serious accident. Several ambulances screeched by. Everyone here is on edge these days.
I’ve got time on my hands. So I turn on IDF Army radio – a popular mainstream station in Israel. A riveting drama is unfolding on the Knesset floor.
I’m a bit surprised. We were braced for the vote on the Reasonableness Bill but the final timing was uncertain. Would it be on Monday or Tuesday? Would it pass? Concern as to how passage of the Bill might negatively impact the country’s precarious security situation loomed.
For days, we had been hearing reports that PM Netanyahu refused meetings with both the Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, as well as the IDF Chief of Staff, Herzi Halevi. In Israel this is beyond incomprehensible. Security is all that matters. At least, that’s how it has been until now.
Israelis are being told by top security leadership – which is pretty much all that anyone trusts these days - that the situation today is the most dire and precarious since 1973. Tensions with Iran, Hizballah and terror groups in the West Bank have been compounded by ceaseless domestic turmoil. Not only has civil society mounted an unending, intensifying protest campaign, but elite IDF and air force reservists have said that they will not serve a government they consider to be undemocratic.
And this unholy governing alliance of ultra-orthodox and messianist extremists - along with fiery Likud ideologues who seem to have a limited grasp of what constitutes a liberal democracy and independent judiciary – further transforms the threat environment into one that is downright existential.
Back to Army radio
Commentators at the Knesset relayed every move on the floor of the legislative chamber in the moments leading up to the vote. Like calling a hockey game in an overtime shootout. It was riveting.
(And, yes. I watched NHL hockey when it was the Original Six. I even remember when the Leafs – as in Toronto Maple Leafs - won the Stanley Cup. Google it.)
In the final moments leading up to the vote, as the MKs streamed into the chamber, reporters on the scene were laser focused on Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant. He was reduced to begging; imploring his colleagues to make some accommodation in their rigid position.
Gallant faces an unprecedented crisis, in which IDF reservists, are refusing, in ever increasing numbers, to report for duty.
Never before in Israel’s’ short history has there been such hostility between the senior military reservists and the civilian government. These men and women often serve well into their 50s and 60s on a voluntary basis, long past any legal requirement or obligation. Honor and pride have formed the glue that coheres Israeli society, until now. But they are saying: ”No more. We agreed to serve a liberal democracy. And we will not risk our lives at the behest of an autocracy, or, worse, dictatorship.”
The pro-judicial reform forces mock this position for being disingenuous. In recent months I have listened as very well-connected pro-reform advocates assert that the reservists who refuse to show up for duty are breaking the law. What law? I ask. And never receive an answer. It’s one of those “everybody knows” kind of arguments.
Their next line of attack, or defense, usually goes something like this: “Do you know what the soldiers who objected to evacuating Gush Katif settlements were told?” (Gush Katif was a bloc of settlements evacuated in 2005 when Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Many Religious Zionists were forcibly removed from their homes and to this day they fume about what they allege is a double standard that was applied to them. A key part of this “argument” invokes the laws regarding regular army service.)
Q: What were the soldiers told in Gush Katif?
A: That to refuse to carry out orders to evacuate Israeli settlements in Gaza (with which some soldiers disagreed) was against the law. As army soldiers their duty was to obey the law and the law said that they must evacuate. End of discussion.
Except that this statement and position is over-simplified and not based in fact. Regular army conscripts who are drafted for a set term of service are legally bound to serve out their term. And to follow orders. There are and have always been soldiers who do not agree with orders but, the understood social contract in Israel is that you do not question as a soldier but you may do so as a citizen. Many, many IDF soldiers do not agree that West Bank settlements should be protected, for example. Nevertheless, they do as they are told by their commanders. Follow the law.
But, a 50-year old combat pilot or intelligence expert is well beyond any legal requirement for service. They are volunteers. And many are now deciding they’d rather not. The volunteers say that they committed to risk their lives to serve a liberal democracy and many view the current coalition government as a creeping autocracy, or dictatorship, lacking legitimacy.
(And, who hollers the loudest and calls them refuseniks and traitors? The ultra-orthodox and Religious Zionists, many of whom do not serve at all.
And, yes. I have confirmed this factual and legal reality with several sources, all familiar with the fact and fiction regarding army service, volunteering and the law. As it turns out, there’s more to it than “everybody knows.”.
Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant has one helluva mess on his hands, to ensure that the IDF remains fully operational in a high-threat environment while managing ever-rising rates of volunteer refusals to serve.
From this point content will be available to paying subscribers, only. If you are not one yet please consider supporting State of Tel Aviv with an annual subscription. Our summer special is a cool $60, 33% off the regular price of $90. This is a time limited offer. If you appreciate the content then please consider the significant time and resources that are required to create it. Your support is critical and deeply appreciated.
State of Tel Aviv is a reader supported enterprise.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial