The longstanding influence of the Israeli military institution in the domestic decision-making process has been subject to decline. This decline was particularly noticeable in the wake of the rising disputes between the Israeli army and the government. These disagreements, which pertain to a variety of domestic and foreign realities, became known to the public. This disagreement has been especially clear since the establishment of the right-wing coalition government, which is determined to implement a plan for judicial reforms as well as the conscription law. These developments necessitate a thorough analysis and extrapolation to further predict their potential future impacts.
Issues of Disagreement
The discord between the military establishment and the Israeli government has manifested in numerous issues that have significantly influenced public opinion within Israel. The most prominent is the plan for judicial reform, which has been marked by divergent approaches between the Israeli army and government regarding the appropriate response to the evolving security environment in the West Bank. Additional disagreements have arisen between the two bodies, as in the case of the Ministry of National Security, where disputes continue to break out between National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and the leaders of Israel’s security services.
These disagreements pose a risk of escalation between the parties involved. Israel has not experienced such tension in the relations between the military and the government since the 1967 Six-Day War when the army—but not Israel’s political body—favored launching a preemptive strike on the Egyptian and Syrian armies.
Four of the Most Prominent Current Controversial Issues
First, the multiple disagreements between Ben-Gvir and the Israeli security and police services, including:
- The disagreement over Ben-Gvir’s decision to establish a national guard force that will report directly to him. The government’s approval of its formation has caused significant controversy. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galante has expressed strong opposition, arguing that it “will create substantial difficulties and disrupt the entire security system.” Experts from the security services and the Israeli army agreed, warning the advisory committee established to oversee the process that the decision to form a national guard represents a “security disaster.”
- The disagreement over Ben-Gvir’s decisions to implement stricter measures against Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons has also sparked controversy. The Israeli National Security Council urged the Israeli government not to adopt these measures, and Israeli security service agencies have warned against the potential negative consequences of the proposed measures they deem “irresponsible,” particularly in light of the Israeli Prison Service’s rejection of them.
- The judicial reform crisis has had significant repercussions on the relationship between Ben-Gvir and Israeli Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai. On August 16, Shabtai stated that “the police only obey the law, not the government’s decisions.” This declaration brought the dispute between Ben-Gvir and Shabtai into public view, and it increased the likelihood that the leaders of the Israeli army and security services would adopt a similar stance to that of the police: adhering to the law rather than government decisions.
Second, the disagreement between Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank, and the Israeli army and security services concerning the actions of settlers in the West Bank. The security services have accused the Israeli government of hindering their ability to quell the violence perpetrated by the settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. This violence is allegedly being carried out “with the encouragement of ministers and Knesset members from the coalition parties.” In response to these accusations, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir issued a joint statement that criticized the Israeli security services and defended the actions of settlers.
Third, the repercussions of the crisis of judicial reforms led by the Israeli government on the security and military establishment, especially in terms of the high number of those who refuse to serve in the Israeli army’s reserve forces. This refusal has extended to the pilots of the air force and special forces units, which prompted Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant to declare that the protests against judicial reforms have “harmed national immunity, posing a threat to Israeli national security.”
Fourth, the impact of new bills introduced by the Israeli government in response to certain demands of the Zionist right-wing parties in the government coalition, the most recent of which is the conscription law that seeks to exempt ultra-Orthodox individuals known as Haredim from military service. This law proposes to lower their recruitment age to 21 years, while allowing Haredim to study in religious institutions until they reach the age of exemption from military service. There are concerns that this law may increase the number of individuals who will refuse to serve in the reserve forces and may extend to soldiers in the regular army.
Effects and Repercussions
The implications of the disagreement between the military institutions and the government in Israel, and the subsequent effects of such disagreement, cannot be separated from the overall transformations that Israel has undergone following the elections for the 25th Knesset, the formation of the right-wing government coalition, and the ascendance of religious Zionism political parties. In this context, some of the anticipated effects and repercussions of this dispute may be fourfold.
First, from a moral, psychological, and social point of view, the image of the army as the unifying establishment that unites all the diverse components of Israeli society has been affected. After many decades in which the Israeli army was the heart of the nation’s conscience has now become subject to controversy and a field to express domestic division, embodied in the expansion of the phenomenon of refusing to serve in many Israeli military and security sectors as a practice of protest.
Second, from a procedural perspective, the passage of the “Reasonableness” law by the Knesset in July 2023 poses a threat to the independence and prestige of the military, which transcends political and partisan disputes. This law asserts the supremacy of the executive authority over the judiciary, diminishes the powers of the Supreme Court, and underscores the primacy of partisan considerations over public interests. This viewpoint is reflected in a comment by Alon Ben-David, a respected analyst for the Hebrew newspaper Maariv who has covered Israeli military and defense issues for more than 25 years, “Seventy-five years after the establishment of the Israeli army, legislation has been enacted that will mark the beginning of the dismantling of the army.”
Third, the diminishing prestige of the Israeli army within society signifies a decline in the secular state represented by the army in favor of a religious, socially conservative, and politically extremist entity. This shift has implications for Israel’s image globally, particularly in the West. Israel has been cultivating and promoting its image as the sole democracy in the Middle East since its inception. The current changes could potentially impact this carefully constructed image.
Fourth, the tarnishing of the Israeli army’s image in the region could be exploited by Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, who perceive this as both a weakening of Israel’s deterrent force and an opportunity to change the rules of engagement, both morally and on the ground. This was evident in the incident in which Hezbollah set up tents in the Shebaa farms in southern Lebanon, an event that Aman, the Military Intelligence Division of the Israeli army, warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about in July 2023. Aman suggested that Israel’s adversaries “recognize a historic opportunity to change the strategic situation in the region following the significant crisis in Israel, a crisis of a magnitude they have never witnessed before.”
In conclusion, while the disagreement between the military establishment and the Israeli government does not, per se, constitute a significant contradiction or pose a strategic threat to Israel, its potential impact on current events and its long-term repercussions should not be underestimated. This is particularly relevant given the ongoing crisis of vertical division arising within Israeli society, as evidenced by the contentious issue of judicial reforms and potential future developments resulting from the growing influence of the Zionist right within the Israeli state and society.
Moreover, the public management of the dispute between Israel’s military institution and its government is unprecedented in Israeli’s 75-year history, both in the depth and persistence of the crisis. One of its most notable effects is that the army has become a party to domestic crises and issues concerning public opinion, deviating from the army’s traditional role as a symbol of national agreement and consensus. These indicators suggest that Israel—the state, the army, and the society itself—is entering a new phase that is different from any experienced in the past.