A judicial overhaul has prompted many military reservists to avoid volunteer duty. Military leaders have privately warned that this might require scaling back operations.
For weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defied critics of his plan to weaken Israel’s highest court: the hundreds of thousands of people who have turned out for protests, the former prime ministers and defense officials, prominent American Jews and Israel’s attorney general.
But he may not be able to ignore a groundswell of dissent from one key Israeli institution: the powerful and influential military.
A growing number of Israeli reservists have threatened to withdraw from voluntary duty in recent weeks if the far-right government that took power late last year pushes ahead with its contentious plan to increase its control over the judiciary, the military says.
The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, has told government leaders that the number of reservists reporting for duty this month fell so far that the military was on the verge of reducing the scope of certain operations, according to three Israeli officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The officials did not provide further details.
The military high command is also concerned about the possibility of resignations from full-time soldiers, two of the officials said.
Analysts say the crisis threatens to undermine Mr. Netanyahu’s reputation as a security expert who prioritizes the safety of the country above all else. Violence is surging in Israel and the occupied West Bank, and fears are growing of threats to Israel’s security from Iran and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
The concerns over morale in the military were at the heart of a drama on Thursday night when the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, met with Mr. Netanyahu to warn him about the effects of the turmoil within the ranks. That intervention came before Mr. Gallant was about to speak out against the judicial plan.
The military has declined to make public full statistics for the drop in reservists reporting for duty this month. But it has confirmed that 200 reserve pilots — a significant proportion of the Israeli Air Force’s pilots, though not a majority — signed a letter on Friday saying that, in protest of the judicial proposal, they would not report for duty for the next two weeks.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied that military leaders had informed the prime minister personally of any threat to the military’s operational capacity. But on a visit to London on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu described the wider phenomenon of reluctant reservists as “a terrible danger to the State of Israel.”
What to Know About Israel’s Judiciary Overhaul
A divisive proposal. A package of proposed legislation for a far-reaching overhaul of the judicial system in Israel has set off mass protests by those who say it will destroy the country’s democratic foundations. Here is what to know:
“We have a very serious problem here,” he added. “How do we contain this thing?”
The unrest within the military is considered the biggest side effect of the government’s divisive plans to overhaul the judiciary. Israel has faced growing dissent since January, when Mr. Netanyahu’s government announced plans to increase government control over who can be a judge and reduce the judiciary’s ability to strike down laws passed by Parliament.
The issue has set off one of the worst domestic crises in Israeli history, prompted concern from allies like the United States and brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets every week since the start of the year. It has also raised tensions with the Jewish diaspora, particularly in the United States but also in Britain, where Jewish and Israeli protesters marched on Friday. The uproar has led to predictions of political violence and even civil war.
Supporters of the government say the measures will help elected lawmakers assert primacy over unelected judges. But critics fear it will remove one of the few remaining checks on government overreach and could pave the way to an authoritarian state.
In the latest fallout from the crisis, Israel’s attorney general warned Mr. Netanyahu on Friday that he had broken the law by announcing that he would become more personally involved in his government’s efforts to make changes to the judiciary.
The attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, said Mr. Netanyahu’s announcement on Thursday breached a Supreme Court ruling from earlier in the year that said the prime minister must avoid conflicts of interest between his professional role and private interests.
Mr. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption in the same judicial system that his government is trying to change.
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But the drama of Mr. Netanyahu’s personal predicament now risks being overshadowed by the threats to the military’s cohesion and battlefield readiness.
The Israel Defense Forces are central to the country’s security and society. Most adult Israelis complete military service, and the institution is considered a social leveler that unifies an otherwise divided population. It remains crucial to the stability of a country that is locked in several low-intensity conflicts, including a shadow war with Iran, and is essential to the maintenance of Israel’s 56-year occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Now, military experts fear the military’s ability to stabilize itself is under threat.
“When the government creates an unprecedented crisis of confidence in the reserve army, those who think that the crisis will not spill over to the regular army are wrong,” Amos Yadlin, a retired general and former head of Israeli military intelligence, wrote on Thursday on N12, a major Israeli news outlet. “The cracks are already visible, competence is compromised and deterrence is weakened.”
These concerns also led this week to rare dissent within Mr. Netanyahu’s party.
On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Gallant, the defense minister, was on the verge of making a speech expressing concern about the judicial overhaul, a move that would have made him the first ally of Mr. Netanyahu to break ranks.
For weeks, Mr. Gallant, a former commando and major general, has faced intense pressure from former military colleagues to speak out against the overhaul. Reserve pilots flooded him with text messages in recent days whenever another air force reservist decided to suspend service, according to three pilots involved in the campaign.
But Mr. Gallant ultimately backed down from expressing any public dissent — at Mr. Netanyahu’s request, according to a Defense Ministry statement. He canceled his speech at short notice on Thursday night amid suggestions from other right-wing lawmakers that he should resign if he could not support the overhaul.
But Mr. Gallant did meet in person with Mr. Netanyahu to warn him of the threats that the judicial crisis posed to the military’s internal cohesion, according to an official familiar with the exchange.
Mr. Gallant also warned Mr. Netanyahu about growing external threats to Israeli security, the official said.
Minutes later, Mr. Netanyahu made a speech on prime-time television, vowing to proceed with the overhaul regardless.
“I met this evening with a series of ministers — among them the minister of defense — and heard his concerns about the ramification of the situation on our national security,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “I am taking this all into consideration,” he added.
As Israel’s internal crisis deepens, security officials say that foreign opponents and domestic extremists are growing more emboldened.
Israel’s internal intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, has detected a significant increase in the number of attempts by Jewish extremists to attack Palestinians and says the perpetrators feel empowered by the high number of extremist settlers in Mr. Netanyahu’s new government, according to a senior defense official.
The official also said that intelligence suggested that Israel’s main adversaries — Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two leading Palestinian militias; the Iranian government; and Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia and political movement — all seemed galvanized by Israel’s internal crisis. They appear to be working more closely together, hopeful that Israel is approaching collapse, the official said.
Reporting was contributed by Jonathan Rosen from Jerusalem, Hiba Yazbek from Nazareth, Israel, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.