Zaki Shalom

Strategic implications of the controversy over judicial reform in Israel

Israel has been facing a severe judicial and political crisis over the last months. While the judicial reform was temporarily suspended, to allow for negotiations, for the Passover holiday, and while the coalition focused instead on passing the national budget by May 29, the political turmoil has not abated. The protests against the judicial overhaul have seen 21 weeks, with ongoing large protests in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. The political protest was given support from both civil society and politicians abroad. This was further fueled by the “disruption day” some weeks ago, and more than 750 reservists of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) announcing that they would no longer answer their call-ups for training.

Much has been said about the immediate consequences for Israel’s political future and the economic impact. However, an in-depth analysis is lacking on how the judicial reform and ensuing protest movement may influence Israel’s long-term ability to contribute towards and implement a solution of the Palestinian issue. It is generally accepted that any steps towards a solution of this issue will have to include at least some form of re-settling of Israeli-Jewish settlers currently living in the West Bank, especially considering the recent rescission of parts of the 2005 Gaza Disengagement Law. The exact number depends on the nature of the agreements that would be reached. It is, however, agreed upon that it will likely surpass 100,000 – over 10 times the number of Israelis who were forced to leave their homes during the implementation of the Disengagement Plan 2005.

The 2005 Israeli Disengagement from Gaza, proposed by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, involved the eviction of over 8,000 Jewish-Israeli settlers living in 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip. The action was internationally hailed as a positive step: “I strongly support Prime Minister Sharon’s courageous initiative to disengage from Gaza and part of the West Bank,” stated US President George W. Bush.

Inside Israel, however, the Disengagement Plan was met by much criticism from across the political spectrum. During the Gaza Disengagement, Israeli settlers who refused to vacate their homes were forcefully evicted by soldiers of the IDF. The disengagement was harshly criticized by Jewish religious leaders, including Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, who called on observant soldiers to be insubordinate and refuse to follow the army’s orders to evacuate the settlers. Given the strong opposition from observant factions of Israeli society, the limited number of cases of insubordinations among soldiers was astounding. In December 2006, Haaretz revealed that merely 163 cases of insubordination were recorded in the report published by the Military Advocate General’s Office and dubbed as “a limited phenomenon.”

Due to new developments over the last years, we expect the opposition to a withdrawal from the West Bank to be much stronger nowadays. Firstly, the number of observant soldiers in the IDF has been steadily increasing. According to an interview conducted by International Crisis Group, “today, over a quarter of young officers wear skullcaps. In the combat units, their presence is two or three times their demographic weight. In the Special Forces, it’s even higher.” Among observant citizens, who are now disproportionately represented in the IDF, there is a widespread opinion that removing Jewish settlers from the occupied territories contradicts the claim that Israel and Israeli Jews have to the biblical land.

Furthermore, the political power of the right-wing sectors within Israel is now stronger than in 2005. Two radical right-wing parties are now part of the coalition and are holding two key positions: Bezalel Smotrich is the current minister of finance, Itamar Ben Gvir is the minister of national security. Lastly, large parts of Israeli society believed in 2005 that a withdrawal of all Israeli military forces and citizens from Gaza to the international border would bring an end to the Palestinian terror activities against Israel. Today, following Israel’s many military engagements with Hamas, who took control of Gaza in 2007, the majority of the Israeli population no longer believes that concessions to Palestine would contribute to limiting terroristic activities against Israel. On the contrary, many worry that Israel’s concessions would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and would thus increase terror against Israel.

Israel’s public has already developed a greater skepticism towards future disengagement plans, and now the protest movement offers a precedent of soldiers using insubordination as a mean to political power. Indeed, in response to the judicial reform as many as 750 reservists in the army, mainly serving in the air force, intelligence and special forces units, announced that they would not answer their call-ups for training as long as the reform was advanced. Reserve and military officers from Israel’s Military Intelligence Special Operations Division warned in an open letter the “legislation in question will destroy everything we have served and fought for. We will not let that happen.”

Unlike in previous cases, where soldiers refused to follow orders that were directly related to the issue that they disagreed with, military service is now used as a political tool. Now, in the context of the struggle against the judicial reforms, the phenomenon of disobedience in the army has been given a widespread legitimacy. Protestors were effectively given permission to block main roads in Tel Aviv, in some cases even emergency vehicles were not able to travel to hospitals. The pilots who openly declared their intention not to carry out their duties were not taken to court. Instead, they were met by Gallant, the defense minister, and Halevi, chief of staff to carry out a sort of negotiations on the terms which would convince them to agree to carry out their duties. These events reflect a breakdown of the dominant rules in Israeli society. The phenomenon of insubordination among the military could be similarly exploited by right-wing soldiers. It is conceivable that soldiers may refuse to evacuate settlers from the West Bank and thus prevent an Israeli government from completing its duties under a future peace agreement with Palestine.

We expect that the judicial reform proposal and the counter-protests will have many long-term implications affecting all facets of Israeli society and its ties to its allies. We further expect the potential difficulties for any future peace processes with Palestine to be far-reaching and inexorable, especially when considering that the judicial reform has given rise to a precedent of insubordination and a more deeply divided Israeli society.

The above was co-authored by Sophia Schmidt, a research intern at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, Israel. She holds a BA from the University of Oxford.

About the Author
Zaki Shalom is a member of the research staff at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a professor emeritus at Ben Gurion University. He has published extensively on various facets of Israel’s defense policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the role of the superpowers in the Middle East, and Israel’s struggle against Islamic terror.
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