In Israel, the people’s Army no longer believes in the people

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By Fabrizio Maronta

1. On March 14, 2023, in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), the coalition centred on the majority party (Likud) of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu approved the now infamous law that, among other things, reformed the Israeli justice system. In the following weeks, for the first time in about twenty years, the refusenik movement reared its head again with a speed and intensity unprecedented in the country’s history. Hundreds of soldiers and reservists publicly announced their intention to abstain from service if the law was not withdrawn. An initial statement to this effect, made hot on the heels of the approval of the rule that “will make the judiciary a political tool dependent on the government, putting an end to Israeli democracy”, gathered almost 300 signatures of elite unit reservists within hours. A second similar statement, issued slightly later, was signed by some 500 soldiers hailing from Unit 8200, an intelligence stronghold that carries out intense activities in the Territories and elsewhere. 

In the days that followed, the Israeli press reported incidents of threatened or enacted insubordination in almost every branch of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) – including Sayeret Matkal, the main reconnaissance unit reporting directly to the General Staff – whose internal chats were filled with refuseniks or would-be refuseniks. The media overhyped, and commanders were deeply concerned by, the dissent in the Air Force, one of the most respected divisions of the IDF on whose full efficiency and loyalty Israeli war superiority largely depends. At the end of March, assailed by a growing protest and pressed by Israel’s ally, the US, the executive suspended the judicial reform. The damage, however, was done. Qualified sources, inside and outside military circles, warn that the climate of breaking ranks risks plunging the Israeli Armed Forces into an “unprecedented crisis”. 

The IDF is not an army like any other. A pillar of Israel, of its security but also of its national identity, this ‘people’s army’, which was founded in 1948 and thus coeval with the Jewish state, plays a crucial role in a country that was born and grew up in constant opposition to its geopolitical surroundings. Almost all Israelis, men and women, are conscripted upon reaching the age of majority (18) for a period that is unimaginable elsewhere: 32 months the men, 24 months the women. After discharge, many remain in the army voluntarily as reservists, usually until age 40 and beyond. They carry out regular exercises and are called upon in case of war, making up the bulk of active combatants in a country where the disproportion between population – 9.3 million people, including one million ultra-Orthodox and almost two million Arab-Israeli; both categories are exempt from military service – and defence needs is glaring. The army also relies on reservists for its day-to-day operations, exploiting their professionalism for crucial tasks such as training or intelligence. Without them, the IDF ceases to function. 

The fact that the current wave of conscientious objections largely involves reservists therefore causes alarm. But these concerns, however intense and justified, are the tip of the iceberg. The potential operational emergency is the outcome of a deeper problem. In the garrison state, where historically the state and its armed forces are the one and same thing, if the army suffers, then the country necessarily suffers, in a two-way link where the failures of one of them feed the malaise of the other. What is happening?

“It is hard to convey to outsiders what IDF reserve duty means to the reservists. Each year or so, one leaves home and hearth to a dusty army base whose buildings are usually sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. Spouses and children often grow resentful back home as they struggle to cope with the missing parent. Yet these hardships don’t lessen the enthusiasm; reservists usually hunger for the chance each time it comes around. They welcome the temporary separation from daily life, the camaraderie of friends growing older together, and the dignity of doing something both difficult and celebrated by one’s community and culture. Those who volunteer for reserve duty would not abandon it on a whim, nor threaten to do so except in deep anxiety and pain.” (H. R. Gur, “No longer willing to carry the burden: Reservist protest hints at deeper crisis”, The Times of Israel, 8/3/2023.)

Pain and anxiety lead straight to the point: the tribalisation of Israeli society denounced in 2015 by then Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with his well-known Four Tribes Speech. Applied to the IDF, this Balkanisation of the state can be described in two ways, depending on whether one considers the arguments of the Israeli Right or Left. Let us start with the former.  

This year, Likud (‘consolidation’) turns half-a-century old. Founded in 1973 by Menachem Begin, it was headed by him until 1983. For the next ten years it was led by Yitzhak Shamir, who was succeeded by Binyamin Netanyahu in 1993. Since then, with the exception of the almost six years (1999-2005) under Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu has been the face of the party, the history of which thus traces half the political story of the current leader. With Sharon – a long-time general forced in 1983 to resign as Defence Minister for his responsibility in the massacre of Palestinians carried out the year before by the Lebanese militia with the acquiescence of the IDF – but even more so since 2005 with Netanyahu’s second stint, Likud has embraced a vindictive anti-elitism, and this has been the its hallmark ever since, both in terms of identity and electoral strategy.

This is the narrative: a racist and exclusive Ashkenazi elite systematically oppresses and marginalises a large Sephardic underclass to protect its privileged status. Likud then takes up the defence of the increasingly less silent majority of Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern and Maghrebi origins (mizrahi in Jewish jargon), which has become its main reservoir of support over the years. The rift between the submerged and the (self-)saved spares no sphere of Israeli society. Including the Armed Forces, whose Ashkenazi cadres reproduce the abuse in military circles – by abusing Sephardic troops who take the risks on the front line to protect Jewish outposts in the Territories. Thus former General Gershon Hacohen, the former commander of the Northern Region who, upon retiring, espoused Likud’s cause and arguments: “It’s no accident that those reservists who are refusing are pilots or in high-tech units; they’re leveraging their value to pressure the army and the government. We’re seeing a confrontation which has developed between a very successful group in Israel, one that has studied at the best schools in Europe and America, while at the same time growing distant from its Jewish roots, and the more traditional, religious Israelis. The trend in Israel favors the latter, and the elite view the high birthrate of the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, as a demographic threat and they are seized with fear. It’s more than fear. It’s obsessive, pathological”. (D. Isaac, “Judicial reform protests threaten to undermine IDF, former commanders say”, Jewish News Syndicate, 28/3/2023.) 

The bitter irony is that the ideas expressed by Zionist right-wing leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky in his 1923 essay The Iron Wall (originally written in Russian) were in fact taken up by David Ben-Gurion without openly admitting it, so much so that that essay became one of the foundations of Israeli security doctrine.

This discourse is countered by a critique from the Left, which in turn denounces the tribalising dynamic, but traces it back to the betrayal of a spirit of sacrifice that has been mocked and exploited for too long. According to this argument, originally the secular Israeli Left did not perceive itself as a mizgar (tribe), but as the essence of an Israeli state in which other political orientations democratically coexisted. But the 20-year-long, vehement accusation of exercising oppression aimed at maintaining a cruel and unjust hegemony is leading the Left to internalise the self-representation as a tribe, an uneven part of an intangible whole. 

The most serious effect is the loss of a sense of responsibility towards the rest of society, to the extent that society is no longer perceived as deserving of and grateful for the sacrifice. At issue there is not only social cohesion, but also the effectiveness and power of the Israeli state. The Left recognises that it is still over-represented in crucial sectors such as high-tech, intelligence, and Armed Forces cadres, but associates this with the socio-cultural origins of state elites whose legacies persist despite the inclusive ideals of Zionism, not because of a specific desire for exclusion. Moreover, this objective prevalence in the control room is morally compensated for by the historical sense of collective responsibility it entails, which needs personal sacrifices that are difficult to justify otherwise.  

It is this Beruf, conceived as a pillar of national welfare and security by the Left, but pointed at as a paternalistic (if not oppressive) privilege by the Right, that is now in question. The growing calls for the separation of a right-wing, traditionalist, and religious ‘Judaism’ from a liberal, secular, and almost stateless ‘left-wing Zionism’ erodes – so the Left denounces – the elites’ sense of belonging, without whose contribution the Israeli experiment is doomed to fail. It is the protest of the military that makes the news, but the equally massive protest of business leaders is no less. The ‘privilege’ enjoyed by these sectors is what provides the country with the skills and money (through taxation) that make it the home of the Jews. Those of the Right included.  

These two opposing, in many ways irreconcilable, visions are fraying Israel’s social fabric and consequently the cohesion of its people’s army, cracking the hitherto close, consubstantial relationship between the two. One shows that, for the first time, the number of Israelis in favour of the People’s Army model with its universal conscription has dropped to less than half. The other indicates that the trust of Israel’s Jewish population in the IDF is 78%: a high figure and higher than other important institutions such as the presidency or the police, but still the lowest of the last thirteen years. 

3. Thus far, we have seen the context. But what is pulsating inside the IDF? What are the accusations, the resentments of the thousands of cadres, soldiers, and reservists who are the protagonists of the unprecedented protests following the approval of the incriminated law? They denounce its illiberal nature and hence the betrayal of Israeli democracy – for those in the IDF who actually consider it as such. By undermining the country’s cohesion, and hence its security apparatus, the armed forces accuse the government of leaving them alone while the regional risk grows again, thus exposing the military to an existential danger. Two main threats lie on the horizon.

One, the Palestinians. It was not the negotiations that decreed the end of the second Intifada in 2005, but the brutal repression by the Israeli army and security services that eliminated terrorists and suspected terrorists, carried out mass arrests, reoccupied the West Bank centres with roadblocks, heavily infiltrated Palestinian armed organisations, and fortified the Green Line. Arafat died in 2004. His successor at the helm of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, renounced violence and agreed to oppose (not without ambiguity) Hamas and the other armed groups on behalf of Jerusalem and with the blessing of Washington and the European Union, which they repaid with lavish aid harbouring endemic but good-naturedly tolerated corruption.

Now that agreement seems to be evaporating due to the parties’ increasing inability to honour it. Abbas is 87 years old. He is politically, as well as physically, increasingly weak and hated by the bulk of the Palestinians, who see him as an accomplice of the Israeli occupier. The desperation of young Arabs in the Territories foments Hamas, the Palestinian Jihad, and other extremist formations. Among these are two new entries: the Jenin Brigades (formed in 2021) and the Lions’ Den (2022). The former is supported and integrated by young people from Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But also from Fatah, which for Israel is a problem within the problem because it attests to the tangible retreat of the pacifist front (all in all, still instrumental) in the Palestinian camp. For the time being, the two formations appear to be poorly organised, lacking resources and capacities similar to those of today’s Hamas or Fatah at the time of the second Intifada. But apart from the risk of atomised and unpredictable terrorism inherent in such a situation, the fact remains that over 70% of Palestinians look favourably on these groups.

The resulting upsurge in violence, the IDF accuse, finds Israel unprepared. Ramadan in recent years has been punctuated by bloody attacks, brutal retaliation (by the settlers) and harsh repression (by Tzahal) with strong repercussions on Israeli’s unstable politics that are fraught with so many quarrels that five elections were held in the last four years. Last year, the IDF killed 151 Palestinians in the West Bank and around East Jerusalem (almost twice as many as in 2021); Palestinian attacks killed over 30 Israelis, while over 50 Palestinians died in clashes between Tzahal and the local Jihad. According to IDF statistics, Palestinians shot at their soldiers almost 300 times, compared to about 60 in 2021 and 30 in 2020. The year 2023 began with the shocking events in Hawara, while the Netanyahu government that came out of the November 2022 elections defended the settlers to the hilt and announced even more repression.

All this leads many, even within the IDF and Israeli intelligence, to believe that a third Intifada is probable and perhaps imminent. This would certainly find the IDF more capable than in 2000 – the intelligence is more developed and the technology more sophisticated and lethal. And it would certainly see a colder regional climate towards the Palestinian cause. But it would also find Israel – its society and its army – more divided and demotivated. With two further caveats concerning the Supreme Court, in the crosshairs of the disputed law. The Court has in fact repeatedly granted a legal shield to the actions of the Israeli military operating in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere. Politicising their actions in a climate of mutual internal distrust is for many, soldiers and reservists alike, a source of unacceptable insecurity. Over time, however, the body has also rejected some of the most controversial settlement expansion initiatives, thus defusing extremely dangerous situations for the soldiers then called upon to defend them. Depriving it of this margin is a further source of disquiet.

4. The other threat deemed increasingly topical comes from Iran. Trump’s scuttling of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear deal) and the failure to resurrect it under Biden were a success for Israel, even though Iran is now likely to be on the threshold of acquiring the bomb. Israeli and US intelligence services believe that Tehran now has the capacity to enrich to 90%, in around two weeks, an amount of uranium that would be sufficient to make at least one atomic device, and that the decision on this depends solely on its political will.

These estimates are based on the amount of fissile material accumulated by the Iranian regime after May 2018, the date on which Washington denounced the JCPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency defines ‘significant quantity’ as the amount of uranium needed to manufacture an atomic bomb, which is about 25 kilograms of uranium containing at least 20% U-235 isotope. From there to the nuclear threshold, the step is relatively short because further levels of enrichment are easier to achieve. The agency calculates that as of August 2022, Iran had over 13 ‘significant quantities’ of uranium enriched above 20%, including at least two above 60%. This level is already sufficient to produce a simple and fairly compact atomic device, while more powerful and sophisticated atomic devices require further technology and higher levels of enrichment. This, however, was a year ago. The Jewish State, like the Saudis, says it is ready for a pre-emptive strike if Iran acquires the capability to produce atomic bombs, but the fact that the option was not triggered as early as 2022 suggests that perhaps for Jerusalem the real point of no return is 90% enrichment. If and when Tehran crosses that threshold with certainty, the IDF would be called upon to act. Would they have the necessary composure, determination, and confidence? Some doubt it.

There is a growing fear in military circles that the image of chaos, crisis, and division projected by Israel will push its enemies to dare, perhaps blatantly miscalculating and triggering conflicts whose outcomes will further destabilise the already fragile regional situation. This is true for Iran, but also for the Lebanese Hizbollah and for the Palestinian armed formations, especially if the growing frustration in the West Bank and Gaza should push one or more of them to try the violence option in order to gain credibility in the post-Abbas era. These scenarios are further exacerbated by the gap that Israel’s trajectory is creating vis-à-vis its American ally, whose intercession (with Trump) was important for the signing of the Abraham Accords and could become important again for Riyadh to join them. 

On March 19, Joe Biden had what White House sources described as a “frank and constructive” conversation with Netanyahu. Above all, frank. Indeed, Biden “underscored his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship […] and that fundamental changes [to the institutional set-up of a democracy] should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support”. (B. Caspit, “Biden losing patience with Netanyahu over judicial overhaul, democratic values”, Al Monitor, 21/3/2023.) The Israeli crisis has taken Washington by surprise: having come to government with the idea of ending the Middle East forever wars to focus on China, Biden already has to deal with Russian aggression on Ukraine, which brings America’s military exposure on the Old Continent far beyond the desired threshold. The entanglement of the Israeli ally in a democratic and possibly military emergency is the last thing the administration wants and is willing to tolerate. Before the Netanyahu government stepped back, diplomatic sources reported that Washington was considering shelving its traditional veto of any resolution against Israel at the UN Security Council, a practice that has so far seen only one exception, with Obama (and Biden as his deputy). 

The retreat of the Israeli executive under the shock wave of street protests seems to defuse, for now, the hottest phase of the crisis. But it leaves intact the Jewish state’s structural problems that contributed to generating this crisis. These problems are exacerbated, certainly highlighted, by yet another resounding split in Israeli politics and society. This threatens to crystallise the “state of deep sorrow and anxiety” that grips growing sectors of the IDF, contributing to the country’s image of weakness and to the risks to its security feared by many.

Translated by Mark A. Sammut Sassi.

This article was adapted from the original that appeared in Limes (03/2023) “Israel against Israel”.