In July, in the midst of a showdown over the fate of Israel’s judiciary, two ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government retweeted a remarkable video. The narrative details a fictitious encounter in which a soldier who is under fire requests air support from a pilot, only to be answered with a question: “Do you support the judicial reform, or not?” The soldier repeats the request, only to receive the same reply. The camera then pivots so the now apparently injured soldier speaks directly to the viewer, asking plaintively “that politics be kept out of the army.” 

Unsurprisingly, the video elicited a firestorm of reactions, not least because it directly implies that pilots might make their defense of comrades contingent on their political views. Indeed, so alarmed was the leadership of the Israel Defense Forces, that its spokesperson Brigadier General Daniel Hagari openly excoriated the video for its attempt to “create internal division within the IDF.” 

Controversy aside, one thing is clear: the Israeli military is already deeply mired in the politics of the judicial overhaul. The government has floated a raft of legislation that, according to legal experts, would significantly free Israel’s executive from legal checks on its authority. Opponents have engaged in massive protests against the measures, demonstrations that have included thousands of reservists in the IDF. Many of these reservists, who play essential roles as air crews, have threatened to stop reporting for service if the overhaul proceeds as planned. With the passage of the first bill in late July, some have begun to follow through on that threat. 

Military leaders elsewhere can learn from the Israeli military leadership’s approach to this situation, especially where democracy is facing the kinds of challenges that Israel is now experiencing.

To be sure, it is a situation no military leader would ever want to face. To have thousands of essential personnel withdrawing from service, or threatening to do so, poses a severe test to a military’s cohesion and operational capacity. In addition, for the conscript-based IDF, the dissent poses a major challenge to the military’s longstanding role as a unifier in Israeli society. 

Herzi Halevi, the IDF’s chief of general staff and its highest-ranking military official, has so far managed the situation well — or at least as well as possible. He and other military leaders have avoided acquiescing to political pressures from Netanyahu and his allies to condemn the reservists and sought to avoid taking actions to polarize the ranks further or incite tensions in Israeli society. They have similarly avoided siding with opponents of the overhaul. At the same time, they also have resisted the temptation to muddle through with a policy of inaction or political disengagement, such as by saying nothing and denying the military has anything to do with the crisis.  

Instead, military leaders have demonstrated the political awareness and acumen demanded of the situation. They have faced the crisis head-on, acting thoughtfully and deliberately, but also without explicitly inserting themselves into the dispute, all while trying to limit damage to the institution and to the political situation in the country. Their reaction does not assure the Israeli military will avoid ongoing controversy — that is proving an impossible task — but it charts a path for navigating the challenges facing the IDF and minimizes the harm that military leaders might do as they move forward.

The case, more broadly, is instructive of the importance of political engagement by military leaders in a fractious domestic political moment. No matter how much military leaders would prefer to comfortably ignore them, such crises inevitably touch servicemembers who as citizens have a stake in their outcome, and they may in some circumstances position the military in the center of crisis, as has occurred in Israel. 

The Reservists’ Protest

Netanyahu and the far-right parties in his coalition government have been pushing a series of legislative measures since January that would sharply curtail the independence of the Supreme Court and other legal checks on the Israeli executive. The moves as initially proposed would restrict the court’s jurisdiction and ability to review legislation, enabling the government-controlled Knesset to override the court’s decisions, while granting it new powers to appoint judges. While there is no written constitution in Israel, the court has by tradition played an important role in providing a check on executive and legislative authority and is a key pillar of the separation of powers essential to liberal democracies. This is all the more important in Israel’s case because, unlike in presidential systems, in the country’s parliamentary system the legislature does not provide an independent check on the executive. What this boils down to — and why it is relevant to understanding the current situation — is that, absent oversight from the judiciary, a government in Israel could in principle pursue any policy and legislation its members wanted with few legal constraints. 

For this reason, opponents fear that the judicial overhaul would spell the death knell of democracy in Israel. Undercutting judicial independence, for example, has been a common pathway of democratic erosion in places like Hungary and Poland. The moves would also end the uneasy equilibrium between the religious nationalists and the secular liberal sectors of society that underpins political stability in Israel. 

These concerns have fueled massive protests against the government’s planned legislation, involving hundreds of thousands of Israelis, with pushback coming from large segments of the high-tech industry on which Israel’s economy heavily relies, as well as from unions, leaders of industry, the financial sector, academia, and the legal and medical professions. 

Beginning in late February, groups of reservists numbering in the thousands also joined the protest, in part by publishing letters threatening to stop volunteering for duty. As tensions have built, those numbers have skyrocketed to more than 10,000. 

This is not the first time reservists have pushed back against government policies. In 2003, for example, two dozen Air Force reserve pilots spoke out against the deaths of Palestinian civilians resulting from IDF airstrikes in the occupied territories. Some reservists also criticized Israel’s management of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. In Israel, more broadly, military elites tend to be far more involved in politics than in many other democracies, in part because a large proportion of the population has served.  

This time, though, the protest involves thousands and is far more organized than prior episodes. Equally important, the reservists are protesting about more than military policy or its outcomes. At stake, in their view, is the very basis of their social contract with the State, which is to defend a democracy. As reservists in the intelligence services put it: “We will not continue to volunteer for reserve service for a state that unilaterally changed the terms of the basic agreement with its citizens.”  Or as one brigadier general in the reserves told an interviewer, in deciding to suspend his service, he had felt compelled to evaluate “the safety of the country, versus the very existence of the country that we fought and were ready to give our lives for.”

Indeed, in their letters and statements, reservists stress that they have been willing to serve under diverse governments and at times carried out missions with which they personally disagreed. As they put it, they are protesting about a larger principle that goes beyond a specific order or government policy. 

The Impact of the Reservists’ Actions

The IDF is reluctant to share exact details, but it appears that since the passage of the first overhaul legislation, several hundred reservists have chosen to withhold service, if not more. In some units that rely on reserve power more heavily, the effect is already being felt, including in training and instruction. Shortly after the passage of the legislation, the number of flight hours required to pass one of the stages of helicopter flight training has been reduced by 5 percent to compensate for the immediate loss of almost half of the training staff. 

There have also been growing concerns about retention, already a sore spot for the IDF. Rather than protest outright, IDF commanders are worried that junior officers will simply choose to retire, rather than continue serving in the current climate. The tensions are reportedly causing friction in some units between those who support and those who oppose the government’s plans. 

Equally concerning is the impact on the military’s operational capacity. Many of those declaring their refusal to serve are Air Force pilots and support crews, upon which the IDF relies heavily in case of large scale war. Those crews also play an essential role in ongoing aerial operations in Syria, Iran, as well as against Hezbollah forces operating along Israel’s borders. Also withholding service are intelligence officers and soldiers, special forces units, medical teams which lean heavily on reserve forces, and some ground combat personnel. Indeed, so alarming are the possible risks to the IDF’s preparedness, that U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley is reportedly planning to travel to Israel to assess the situation himself.

All of this is occurring at a moment of heightened tensions in the region, in which Israel’s adversaries have been emboldened. Hezbollah’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, has called the passage of the legislation and subsequent protest “the worst day in the history of [Israel], as some of its people say,” and predicted the internal crisis “puts it on the path to collapse, fragmentation and disappearance.” Indeed, in recent months Hezbollah has been challenging Israel in ways it has not attempted in years, including engaging in cross border intrusions, laser flashes at Israeli civilians, and stealing border security cameras. 

Then there are the symbolic ramifications in a country that uses conscription and where military service is considered a civic duty and a rite of passage.  The proposed judicial overhaul and the reaction against it is putting pressure on the class- and ethnic stratifications within the reserves and across the active force, differences usually muted by the common bonds of military service. 

Predictably, Netanyahu has not been happy with the protesting reservists, and has used heated rhetoric to express his dissatisfaction. As he put it in one closed-door meeting, Israel “can do without a few air squadrons, but it cannot do without a government.”  More recently, members of Netanyahu’s government and its allies on the right have been disparaging Halevi, at times with harsh and disturbing rhetoric. They also regularly refer to the reservists as coup-makers, or deem them rebels who must be put down.  

Still, the prime minister’s options for doing something about the reservists are limited. When he tried to fire his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, in March, the blowback was so strong that he was forced to back down (the protest that followed the announcement of his firing is now routinely referred to as “Gallant Night”). Gallant himself has defended the military leadership. Any effort by Netanyahu’s government to try to fire the chief of staff, a move no one has seriously suggested so far, would be even more politically explosive, and legally complicated. Even so, he and his allies have pressured the military to label the protesting reservists as “refuseniks” and their actions as “refusal”—loaded terms in the context of Israeli politics which imply that the reservists are disobeying orders. 

The Military’s Response 

The conventional rules of civil-military relations in democratic systems require military leaders to stay out of domestic political disputes. Any other course of action risks politicizing the military and its role in the controversy. But what does staying out of politics mean for military leaders facing a democratic crisis, especially one embroiling the military? 

One approach—a flawed one—is tantamount to doing nothing or as close to little as possible. Granted this is harder to do when some of your personnel are actively threatening to resign, as we see in Israel. Still the temptation is strong to go this route, especially in militaries wedded to an orthodox view of apolitical norms of military professionalism. In practice, this would mean that military leaders abstain from making any public statements and respond to queries from the press or legislature with non-answers and platitudes. Internally, military leaders might also try play-down the controversy, even seeking to restrict internal reporting and sharing of information on the impacts of the tensions on the organization and its mission. 

One problem with this approach is that it allows tension over the domestic political dispute in the ranks to fester, thereby adding to problems in cohesion, rather than trying to diffuse them. Even worse, inaction of this kind can be counter-productive to minimizing the military’s political role in the democratic crisis . When the military institution is already mired in the controversy, silence might be seen by the public as complicity in the government’s agenda, not impartiality. Leaders choosing inaction risk making things worse, not better. 

Neither is it a good idea for the currently serving military leadership to expressly side with one party or another. This risks adding to the polarization within the ranks, if not within society at large—and in any case, is unlikely to have much impact on resolving the dispute. 

Rather than inaction or taking sides, military leaders have another option: remain politically engaged and actively involved in minimizing the negative effects on or by the military in the democratic crisis. They acknowledge openly and clearly that the military — via its personnel, and organizational missions — that the crisis impacts the military, but do so in a way that focuses on the mission of the military and seeks to minimize any potential negative effects in exacerbating tensions both internally and externally. This is easier said than done, but the actions of IDF leadership during Israel’s current political crisis suggest how it might be approached. 

To start, instead of denying the existence of the dispute and using distancing language when it is brought up, military leaders have openly acknowledged the crisis over the judicial overhaul  and its larger implications. Chief of Staff Halevi, for example, has referred to the political dispute as “legitimate,” even as the fallout affects the military. 

A second step is to communicate a lot and communicate often, especially at critical junctures – both up and down the chain of command and across the political-military divide. In late February, when the reservist protest was just gathering steam, Chief of Staff Halevi communicated with Minister of Defense Gallant and Prime Minister Netanyahu to express his concern over the implications of the protest for unit cohesion and combat readiness. Since then, he and other military leaders have maintained open lines of communication to political overseers. Throughout the crisis, Halevi has been receiving daily updates on the magnitude of the reservist protest, and the reports have been provided to Gallant and Netanyahu. As the vote on the first piece of overhaul legislation was being conducted, the IDF asked and was permitted to brief political figures on both sides of the aisle. This may seem inconsequential, but given the contentious politics surrounding the measures, military leaders might have been tempted to stay away from the fray.

Halevi has also role-modelled the importance of democratic control of the military by speaking to the public in public statements and letters about the costs of the crisis to the IDF. Admittedly, indicating the severity of the challenge is in the IDF’s interest; still, the military leadership appears willing to take notable risks in what it shares to ensure the public remains informed. While withholding specific numbers, the IDF has already disclosed in closed press briefings that there is a threshold at which the reservists withholding of service would damage combat readiness. Indeed, military leaders increasingly signal their intent to speak clearly to the public about the harm the crisis is causing the IDF, thereby underscoring the military’s direct ties to Israel’s citizens.

Normalizing this kind of direct communication enables the public to engage with the facts, while circumventing the risk that the executive branch might use its control over messaging to distort the public discussion about military matters. Importantly, in his public statements, Halevi has been careful to focus on implications for the military organization and avoided weighing in on the larger dispute. He has also avoided the temptation of blaming politicians for the dispute, or engaging in both sides-ism about its causes, actions that would undermine the respectful stance toward the dispute that the military has sought to maintain. 

Unfortunately, this is not a foolproof strategy. Pro-overhaul commentators have criticized the military for what they say are its leaders’ overblown statements about risks to the IDF, while also implying that the warnings aim to undermine support for the government’s plans. Halevi nonetheless has signaled he wants to be as straight with the public as possible. 

Military leaders have also spoken directly and clearly to their subordinates. After the video recounted above was circulated, Halevi sent out a letter to commanders in which he acknowledged forthrightly the obstacles facing the IDF, especially in maintaining cohesion and operational capacity. 

Halevi himself has spoken to every single colonel in command in the IDF. He has also met with dozens of reservists, reminding them of their obligation to serve, and reassuring them that he will not allow the military to be misused. In these conversations, he has underscored the importance of unity within the ranks and of the national security imperatives of continuing to serve. While stressing the gravity of the situation though, he has neither applauded, nor openly denounced the reservists, or their actions. 

The military leadership is also leveraging the relationships and bonds between commanders and their units to remain engaged with the dissenting reservists, and otherwise diffuse simmering tensions within their units. IDF leaders have instructed commanders to contact reservists under their leadership to discuss the crisis. Importantly, this communication is intended to be personal and direct. Commanders appear to have been instructed not to rely on general unit-level written communications; responsibility for communicating with the troops is concentrated at the battalion commander level (lieutenant colonel). The IDF has told reporters that by working through commanders, they are hoping to accurately gauge who might decline to serve, and possibly use personal relationships to convince reservists to continue to report for duty. 

Essential to all of this communication is avoiding inflammatory or loaded phrases that might signal support for one side or another. Statements from the IDF almost always speak of reservists “no longer reporting for duty.” This is despite pressure from the prime minister, cabinet officials, and their media allies to describe the reservists as “refuseniks.” By avoiding the term, the IDF leadership is likely aiming to prevent a breach of trust with the protesting reservists, allowing them to return to service should they choose to do so. Disciplinary action against the subset of reservists that are legally bound to report for duty, but who have failed to do so, is being administered only as a last resort.

In his statements to IDF personnel, Halevi has additionally emphasized overriding values such as service for the greater good and a shared sense of military purpose in the face of growing security challenges and comradery, while pointing out – contrary to the divisive video — cases in which air crews and ground units risked their lives for each other. This is one more way that, without ignoring the seriousness of the crisis or taking sides, IDF leaders have remained politically engaged and, in so doing, helped the IDF and Israeli society to weather the storm. 

Lessons for Military Leaders

The Israeli situation, while unique in many ways, provides broader lessons to military leaders in other democracies about how they might manage a crisis of democracy. In many cases, military leaders, in a well-intentioned, if flawed, understanding of the need to remain “apolitical,” might turn to inaction and denial. In other words, they might think that the best way to stay out of domestic politics is to pretend those politics do not exist and that the military has nothing to do with them — and then to assert as much in public and to the force itself. 

But this approach is likely to fail, in that it leaves any brewing tensions within the ranks unaddressed. Inaction only intensifies the cohesion problems that military leaders are seeking to avoid. 

Instead, military leaders need to first acknowledge the crisis and seek out information about how it is affecting the force, while being sure that their subordinates feel at ease reporting any bad news up the chain of command. The leaders, in turn, need to develop a plan to communicate with service members, acknowledging there may be differences in political views among them, while emphasizing shared values and common bonds of service, as well as the core external missions and demands facing the military. Military leaders also need to speak to the public, in part to prevent a vacuum in which other actors can advance their own narratives about the military’s stance in the crisis. Clear and honest acknowledgement of the situation, using temperate language that is devoid of partisan framing, is essential.

In extreme democratic crises, such as cases in which politicians pressure military leaders to put down peaceful protests unjustifiably, military leaders might need to go further. In these instances, they might reiterate that regular procedure dictates that they should not be a party to such actions, as military leaders did on various occasions in recent years in Latin America, or in India in 1975. They can also signal they need to seek legal clarification to slow things down and ensure that there is adequate justification for the military’s involvement. 

Even in less extreme situations, the military leadership must continuously gauge how its actions and statements might influence public perceptions. The risk, once again, is that the public thinks military leaders are complicit in anti-democratic actions or that they are unwittingly portrayed as such by politicians. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley found himself in such a predicament after he accompanied then-President Donald Trump across Lafayette Square in June 2020 during racial justice protests following the killing of George Floyd, an event for which Milley subsequently apologized. 

In short, during democratic crises, military leaders must communicate carefully with the public and their subordinates, as well as weigh actively how best to act to minimize the damage on the military, while not adding to tensions in society. These actions, combined, exemplify sage leadership — something sorely needed in moments of democratic crisis.

IMAGE: Israel’s incoming military chief Herzi Halevi (front L) attends an honor guard ceremony at the Israeli Defence Ministry in the city of Tel Aviv, on January 16, 2023. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images)