The IDF Reservists Protest against the Judicial Overhaul – Explainer

| Written By:

Over 160 reserve officers in the Air Force HQs, including officers with the rank of General, have announced that they will immediately cease to report for reserve duty. More than 1,100 officers, including fighter pilots, and over 10,000 reservists from various IDF units, including the special forces, have declared that they will stop reporting for reserve duty if the legislation is put into effect.

Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

In recent days, the protest of reserve soldiers in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) against the judicial overhaul has grown, and specifically against the government’s intent to limit the authority of the judiciary to review the decisions of certain elected officials - the Prime Minister, ministers and the government as a whole - even in cases of extreme unreasonableness. Many of the protest actions in Israel are led by an organization called "Brothers in Arms," which was originally established by reserve soldiers from special forces and has expanded over time to include reservists from various army units. In addition, over 160 reserve officers in the Air Force HQs, including officers with the rank of General, have announced that they will immediately cease to report for reserve duty. Additionally, more than 1,100 officers, including fighter pilots, and over 10,000 reservists from various IDF units, including the special forces, have declared that they will stop reporting for reserve duty if the legislation is put into effect.

Immediately after the Knesset passed the above-mentioned legislation in the afternoon on July 24th, many reservists announced that they will immediately cease to report for duty, and although it is still early to assess the full impact in the legislation in this regard, the trajectory is highly worrying.

This protest by reserve soldiers has sparked a fierce political and public debate in Israel. On one hand, government ministers have labeled the protesting reserve soldiers as "insubordinate," accusing them of an "attempted military coup," and calling for their imprisonment. On the other hand, former IDF chiefs of staff and other former heads of security agencies and senior security officials have published a letter expressing support for this protest and citing the government's violation of the social contract between the State and the reservists as a justifiable reason to protest.

The aim of this explainer is to shed light on these developments and their implications for Israel’s security and for Israeli society.

What is the role of reservists in the IDF?

In the IDF, soldiers can be divided into three main personnel categories:

Soldiers serving in compulsory service as part of the standing army.

Israel has universal conscription, which applies to all Israeli men and women when they reach the age of 18. The length of compulsory service for men is 32 months, and 24 months for women (there are discussions about shortening the service period for some soldiers). In practice, less than 50% of 18-year-old men actually enlist due to various exemptions, granted primarily to the Arab and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) populations.

Soldiers serving as career officers in the standing army.

Service in the standing army is based on a contractual agreement between those who have completed their compulsory service and chose to volunteer for additional service and the IDF. The purpose of career officers service is to foster continuity, professionalism, and experience in the military.

Soldiers serving in reserve duty.

IDF veterans who have completed their compulsory service are assigned to the reserve system until the ages of 40-49, depending on their military profession. The purpose of reserve soldiers is to significantly augment the capacity of the IDF primarily in times of emergency and war. During routine time, they undergo training to maintain their readiness. Some reserve soldiers, such as combat pilots and officers in IAF operational HQs, and intelligence personnel, also fulfill operational roles during routine time, serving as an integral part of standing army units. Thus, important ongoing operational activities of the IDF also rely on reserve soldiers.

In practice, only about 4% of the 22 - 45-year-olds serve in the reserves. This is due both to the needs of the IDF and the fact that many people evade reserve duty for various reasons. Therefore, it can be said that in practice, reserve service is largely voluntary. Reserve duty is also officially voluntary for some soldiers, since they are not under legal obligation to do so; for example, if they are already exempt from reserve duty due to their age or because they serve in special forces.

How do the reservists justify their decision not to report to duty in response to the judicial overhaul? 

Reserve soldiers who have decided not to report for reserve duty, whether immediately or if the legislation process is completed, present several arguments in support of their decision:

  1. The government’s actions - both their content and the process through which they are carried out - violate the social contract between the reserve soldiers, and the IDF and the State. They argue that they committed to serve (and sometimes risk their lives) for a Jewish and democratic state of Israel, as also stated in the IDF's code of ethics. However, if the State violates its part of the agreement, they are not obliged to keep theirs.
  2. In the absence of independent legal oversight and supervision they fear receiving unlawful orders without (while in the background are also the call by the Minister of Finance just a few months ago to "wipe out [the Palestinian village of] Hawara" in response to a terrorist attack carried out by residents of the village, as well as other incidents of violence and terror that occurred in recent months against Palestinians under the current government).
  3. The concern that the legislation promoted by the government to overhaul the judicial system, will come at the price of its independence, resulting in an increased risk of legal proceeding before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague and foreign judicial authorities due to their military activities.

Many of those who have decided not to report for reserve duty are not legally obligated to do so, as they are volunteers. Therefore, their decision not to report for reserve duty does not have disciplinary or criminal consequences, but it may result in dismissal from their military positions. From the perspective of the reserve soldiers who chose to suspend their volunteering, defending the democratic character of the State of Israel is of equal significance as their commitment to defend Israel's security.

What are the consequences of the reservist protest to the IDF?

The implications of the reserve soldiers' protest for the IDF should be examined in light of two main aspects that are interconnected: Operational readiness and social cohesion. With regard to the former, the IDF has stated that it conducts ongoing situation assessments and shares them with the political echelon on a routine basis, and that at this point the IDF is prepared and ready for war. According to experts' positions, in the immediate future, the IDF’s operational readiness is not expected to be impacted as a result of reserve soldiers' refusal to report for duty. However, as the number of reserve soldiers refusing to report increases and the operational needs of the IDF grow (for example, meeting challenges on multiple fronts), the IDF may be faced with a problem. For example, the Air Force relies also on its reserve fighter pilots to carry out ongoing operational activities as part of its standing forces. Over time, reserve soldiers who do not take part in the required training are likely to lose their operational readiness. Nevertheless, many reserve soldiers have stated that in case of a security emergency, they would report for their military duties in the reserves.

The more immediate implication, and one which is of greater concern at the moment, relates to the social cohesion within the IDF, which, according to statements by the Chief of Staff, has already been compromised. Despite the inherent difficulties, the IDF has been trying over the years to distance itself from political controversies, and thus to enable shared service, for which mutual responsibility is crucial, for soldiers across the political spectrum.

In his recent letter to all IDF personnel, the Chief of Staff emphasized that the strength of the army lies in its human resources, in a high level of readiness and cohesion, and that if high caliber individuals do not serve in the IDF, Israel's existence as a state in the region will be at risk. He called on all reserve soldiers to distinguish between civil protest and security service and to fulfill their duty, even during these complex times. At the same time, he also stressed that criticism of those who have chosen not to report should be expressed respectfully, without disregarding all they have done for the country.

Behind the Chief of Staff's statements is a concern that the breakdown of social cohesion within the IDF is liable to have an impact on the caliber of those serving both in the standing and reserve forces. The most skilled and talented individuals, who currently contribute to the exceptional capabilities of the Air Force, intelligence, and cyber units, for instance, might choose not to volunteer to serve in these units any longer. Thus, even if numerically the IDF fills its ranks, the caliber of its personnel might be compromised. The impact on the quality of human resources is not immediate and difficult to measure (it is not easy to conclude that a bright young recruit has decided not to volunteer for operational cyber activity due to the judicial overhaul or the negative impact on cohesion within the IDF; neither is it simple to assess whether a soldier chooses to discharge from the IDF instead of attending an officers' course and volunteering for additional service due to similar reasons), but its consequences could be severe and irreversible, especially given the constant grace security threats that Israel is facing.


Don’t the current developments threaten to erode IDF’s ethos as a “people’s army”?

Military service in Israel is based on the model and ethos of the IDF as the "People's Army." One of the main characteristics of this model is the compulsory enlistment of every young man and woman upon reaching the age of 18. Another characteristic is the fact that the IDF is founded on a common system of values, which is the basis for the legitimacy of the requirement of mandatory conscription. As the People's Army, the IDF is apolitical, works for the benefit of all citizens and is subject to both the law and the government. According to the IDF's code of ethics, its soldiers are required to act in accordance with the military mission and IDF values, and national security as their top priority.

In practice, the "People's Army" model has been challenged for quite some time. As mentioned above, today, only about 50% of 18-year-old men enlist in the IDF, and less than 4% of those aged 22-45 serve in the reserve forces. However, the ethos of "People's Army" - an army being "of the people" - still prevails in Israeli society, and many continue to enlist to the IDF and to volunteer to various positions that require volunteering. It is this ethos which serves as the foundation for the strong sense of solidarity within the army, and traditionally, the IDF enjoys high public trust, surpassing all other institutions in Israeli democracy (85% among the Jewish public in 2022).

Alongside the numerous advantages of a "People's Army” (as opposed to the model of All Volunteers Forces that prevails in many other countries), there are additional implications. There are ongoing reciprocal relations between the army and society, relations that are two-sided. Divisions within society do not vanish in the army. As a result, it appears that rising levels of conscription avoidance reflect the deterioration of those common values on which the IDF is founded. The price, as the Chief of Staff pointed out, is the already existing damage to the army's internal cohesion, which is crucial for the IDF’s spirit, and without which the “People’s Army” model is at risk.

Therefore, many see a significant danger in the government's continued promotion of the judicial overhaul, despite the repercussions to the IDF. Reserve soldiers are among the populations with the highest motivation to serve and show the greatest dedication. For them, refusing to report for reserve duty is an extremely difficult decision.

Concerns have been raised that this current phenomenon sets a dangerous precedent for the future. Throughout the history of the State of Israel, there have been incidents in which soldiers have refused to obey military orders or serve in specific positions, for political reasons. The refusal of soldiers on the political Right to take part in evacuation of settlements (for example the evacuation of the Sinai region following the peace agreement with Egypt; the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria in 2005; the evacuation of illegal outposts in the West Bank) along with the refusal of soldiers on the political Left to serve in the West Bank or participate in the First Lebanon War in 1982. What distinguishes the current phenomenon is that it is not a protest against the army's activities, but rather -against changes in the state's regime and judicial system, which are outside the realm of the IDF.

There is, of course, a fear that a taboo has been broken here. Many of the reserve soldiers who decided not to report for service have explained that they had served for years under right-wing governments, even while promoting policies they opposed (such as continued Israeli military and civilian presence in the West Bank). But now, they say, they are seeing a fundamental and substantive change in the rules of the game and the very character of the state. They claim that it is the government that has broken the taboo - not them. Additionally, given that many of them are volunteers, their argument is that in a liberal democracy one cannot expect them to act in a way that completely contradicts their values.

What do Israelis think about this type of protest? Do they support it?

Against the backdrop of the reservists' protest, the IDI Center for Security and Democracy and the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research conducted a unique and first-of-its-kind public opinion survey at the end of last March. We sought to check the public's position on the reservists' protest. The survey included 602 Jewish respondents and revealed that close to a third of the respondents supported volunteer reservists’ protest, such as the fighter pilots. When we analyzed the responses according to political affiliation, we found that only 17% of right-wing voters viewed the volunteer reservists’ refusal to serve as legitimate, compared to 37% of centrist voters and a majority- 56% of left-wing voters. However, the majority from all three political groups believed that reservists should not refuse to report for duty in cases of an emergency call-up, in situations such as security confrontations or in the case of concern for the country's security. Only 26% of left-wing voters, 13.5% of centrist voters, and a mere 6% of right-wing voters supported refusal even in emergency situations.

The data teaches us that there is a relatively strong correlation between political positions and the level of support for the reservists' protest and its legitimacy in the eyes of different population groups. Another survey conducted by IDI in July confirms this conclusion and also reveals the current deepening polarization of opinions. A clear majority of 65% of left-wing voters (compared to 56% in the previous survey in March) consider refusal to report for reserve duty as a legitimate action within the framework of a public protest against the government on an issue of supreme national importance. In contrast, only 9% of right-wing voters (compared to 17% in the previous survey) hold this opinion.

Despite the divided opinions regarding support for the reservists' protest, it seems that most respondents believe that the IDF's response to reservists’ protest should be relatively lenient and restrained or include dialogue between the reservists and their commander, to persuade them to respond when called up. It appears that this is the IDF’s current response, as media reports indicate that it first approaches reservists to inquire if they will report when called-up, and refrain from calling up those who decline.

However, when examining the data by political bloc, we see differences of opinion as to the appropriate response of the IDF when reservists do not show up for service. A majority of right-wing voters believe that strict disciplinary and criminal measures should be taken against reservists, whereas most left-wing voters believe that the response should be more restrained and reflect an understanding of their position.