In judicial overhaul protests, Israel’s soldiers face off against Netanyahu

TEL AVIV — A showdown between masses of Israeli protesters and far-right leaders over a plan to limit the Supreme Court’s power escalated Sunday as thousands of military reservists threatened to refuse their volunteer service if the legislation is ratified, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underwent an unannounced heart procedure early Sunday when a pacemaker was implanted. He was still hospitalized Sunday evening, adding to the drama of the mounting crisis.

Netanyahu’s sudden health crisis injected further uncertainty into a process already fraught with instability and political chaos. The fight over the government’s bid to overhaul the judiciary — including curbing the top court’s oversight powers and granting coalition lawmakers more authority to appoint judges — has roiled Israel for months.

The proposal has drawn weekly mass protests across the country, as well as searing criticism from Israel’s top security officials. The Knesset is set to vote on the legislation Monday. Opponents of the bill say it will undo Israel’s fragile democracy, which has no constitution. The Supreme Court is widely seen as an institution that upholds civil rights and the rule of law.

In Jerusalem, thousands of demonstrators camped outside the Knesset building, and thousands more linked arms to form a human chain from the Western Wall in the Old City to the parliament, calling on lawmakers to halt the bill’s passage until a consensus is reached.

Netanyahu defiant as vote to limit Israel courts looms amid rising protests

But Netanyahu, recovering from surgery, remained defiant. “We are continuing efforts to complete the legislation,” he said in a video statement broadcast Sunday afternoon.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a key proponent of the bill, was appointed as Netanyahu’s stand-in while he was under sedation. Another key backer of the legislation, Simcha Rothman, told the Knesset on Sunday that the bill will “make Israel democratic again.”

The far-right government and its supporters say the overhaul will give lawmakers greater freedom to implement policy — including more benefits for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority and a de facto annexation of the West Bank, the land that Palestinians envision as part of their future state.

But Netanyahu’s health scares, including a fainting incident earlier this month, have kept him from attending critical security and defense meetings as tensions ran high. The opposition of senior security officials and the military’s rank-and-file perhaps poses the most serious threat to the legislation — with some warning the divisions could weaken Israel’s preparedness in a region beset by conflict.

More than 10,000 reservists from dozens of military units said Saturday that they would not report for duty if the legislation passes. On Friday, 500 military intelligence reservists and more than 1,100 air force reservists made similar announcements, saying in a joint letter that they refuse to serve a “dictatorship.”

“This is where we draw the line. We serve the kingdom, not the king,” Eyal Neve, a leader of the protest group whose members include active-duty and former soldiers from the Israeli military’s most elite units, said in a news conference. “If you want us on your side, we who have served under right- and left-wing governments, we are calling on you to stop the legislation.”

In a rare statement Sunday, military chief Herzi Halevi warned that despite its best efforts to stay out of the debate, the army has already been damaged by the polarized landscape.

“Without the best of our best serving in the army, we will not continue to exist as a country in our region,” he said, adding that the intense divide “in Israeli society has caught the army up in it, and the army’s cohesion has been damaged.”

Meet the Israeli protesters resisting Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul

Since its founding, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israel’s relatively tiny national army, has relied on reserve volunteers to maintain its readiness. Its three-part structure relies on a small corps of professional officers and instructors to train a constantly replenished main body of young draftees — 32 months of military service is mandatory for most Israeli men; 24 months for most Israeli women. Reservists step in during wartime.

“The professionals and the conscripts are there to hold to the line, but you need the reservists to win the war,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council and a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Reserve pilots in particular are central to keeping Israel on a war footing, he said, estimating that about 60 percent of air force fliers are reservists who spend a day or two each week keeping their skills honed. Losing the several thousand flyers and senior operational commanders who have pledged to step aside if the legislation becomes law would be a “body blow” to the IDF, he said.

“If they don’t have the pilots and the operational staff, their ability to function decreases immediately,” Freilich said. “Small things can still be done, but it would impair the ability to conduct major operations or launch a strike against Iran, should that prove necessary.”

For their part, coalition lawmakers have accused the demonstrators of attempting a military coup against a democratically elected government.

“There is a tremendous attempt here to blackmail the elected government and bring about total chaos where those who make the decisions are not the elected officials,” far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir wrote on Twitter on Saturday. At the same time, thousands of demonstrators were completing the last leg of a five-day, 40-mile hike from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, hoisting blue-and-white Israeli flags and chanting, “De-mo-cra-cy!”

Amos Davidowitz, 65, a lieutenant colonel in army reserves who has been a soldier since 1976, was among the marchers who arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Before joining the protest near the Israeli parliament, he rested in the shade, speaking on the phone with his commander and company rabbi, discussing a reserve training session scheduled for Wednesday. Davidowitz said he and his men would attend, though they supported reservists who decided otherwise. He blamed the politicians for forcing fighters into a terrible choice.

They “are going to question my patriotism, as many times that I’ve been shot at, in three different wars?” he said with angry incredulity, tears in his eyes, referring to coalition members who have challenged the loyalty of protesting soldiers.

“It’s not right that they put us in this position,” he said, sobbing. “It’s not right, and I want someone to explain it to me.”

Hendrix reported from Jerusalem.

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