Why judicial overhaul threatens Israel’s national security
In the inaugural cabinet meeting of Israel’s 37th government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined four primary objectives: containing Iran and its proxies – Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Houthis in Yemen; restoring “security and governance” – a hint at the lawlessness that has plagued the Arab sector in Israel, mainly in the south; tackling the high cost of living; and expanding peace and normalisation agreements, with Saudi Arabia being the crown jewel.
However, almost seven months later, it seems that all of the above was smoke and mirrors, and the true focus of the current government has been the judicial overhaul, which has sent Israel spiralling into an unprecedented domestic crisis that carries with it serious national security implications.
Regardless of one’s perspective on the overhaul, the potential damage to Israel’s national security demands immediate attention. Steaming ahead with the judicial overhaul while tearing apart the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the economy, social cohesion, and weakening Israel’s regional and global standing is irrational, dangerous, and unforgivable.
The substantial domestic and international policy capital invested and the initial urgency with which the government tried to push the judicial overhaul are puzzling. They raise perplexing questions about the Israeli government’s set of priorities and its national security strategy, particularly as Israel navigates a fully-fledged strategic competition with Iran, which is occurring against the backdrop of the unravelling strategic competition between the United States (US) and China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all of which are reshaping regional and global dynamics.
It appears as if the government is unable or unwilling to weigh the economic, social, and security implications of a divisive manoeuvre that lacks political and public consensus. Why pay such a heavy price and strategically weaken Israel’s position regionally and abroad?
Of growing concern is the coalition’s apparent disregard for counsel from experts spanning various fields who have urged the government to conduct a comprehensive impact assessment, engage in a broader perspective, and reach a collective agreement. Some have expressed growing concern that Israel’s adversaries might exploit what they perceive as vulnerability to initiate an unexpected assault or become more daring in their provocations.
In March 2023, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), headed by Professor Manuel Trajtenberg and Major General Tamir Hayman, the previous head of the Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman), published a strategic alert following the judicial overhaul, which seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Netanyahu’s government. However, the INSS isn’t alone – notably 169 former chiefs of staff, intelligence heads, police officials, and IDF generals issued a grave warning on 11 August 2023, underscoring an immediate threat to Israel’s security, the IDF’s combat readiness, and the possible International Criminal Court prosecution of Israeli soldiers.
Other senior officials, such as the previous director-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Zeev Snir, who was appointed by Netanyahu himself, issued a strong personal warning to the prime minister regarding Israel’s capacity to address the complex Iranian challenge due to the fixation on advancing the judicial reform.
These warnings have become more dire as Netanyahu flirts with the idea of disregarding a possible Supreme Court ruling that would strike down the reasonableness law. This could plunge Israel into a full-blown constitutional crisis, potentially forcing security agency heads to choose between a high court directive and potentially illegal legislation.
The judicial overhaul’s ramifications extend further, including to what the INSS has coined “a significant weakening of social resilience” and “serious damage to Israel’s economy due to its dependence on international-capital transactions and developments of advanced technology, which make it especially vulnerable to capital flight and brain drain”. As a result, Israel’s capacity to invest in national security and counter Iran would probably be diminished since Israel’s security strategy is heavily reliant on advanced technology and a skilled workforce.
The implications extend once again to the IDF’s operational capabilities and the “people’s army” model, as members of Netanyahu’s coalition frequently launch vicious attacks on senior officers in the IDF and the Shin-bet, as well as Israel’s attorney general. These verbal assaults align with a broader effort to undermine state institutions. Reservists from key units such as the Israeli Air Force, military intelligence, and special forces have stopped reporting for voluntary reserve duty due to what they perceive as regime change which has no political or public consensus. These reservists are also aware that a weakened judiciary increases the risk of International Criminal Court prosecution. The cherry on top comes in the form of the coalition’s plan to pass a draft law that will exempt certain groups of the Israeli public from service, further exacerbating inequality and societal division.
Arguably the most alarming consequence is the strain on US-Israel relations, as tensions diminish Israel’s already limited capability to have an impact on nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran. The US provides a diplomatic umbrella to Israel, and its military presence across the Middle East and co-operation with Israel across multiple fronts are critical to Israel’s national security. An isolated Israel would struggle to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat and Iran’s regional proxies.
The Palestinian arena remains volatile and constitutes a (minor) thorn in the side of US-Israel relations. Israel has experienced a wave of terror attacks against the backdrop of a weak Palestinian Authority and constant attempts by Hamas and Iran to aggravate the situation. The current government’s inflammatory statements and attempts to alter the status quo risk igniting the Palestinian powder keg as well as potentially harming existing normalisation agreements and Israel’s ability to reach a game-changing agreement with Saudi Arabia.
The components of a potential Saudi deal are also likely to create tension within Netanyahu’s coalition as they may contain moderate concessions to the Palestinians. These concessions run counter to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s efforts to change the reality drastically in the West Bank. However, the more worrying concessions come in the form of the potential sale of advanced weaponry and a civilian nuclear programme, which would have an impact on Israel’s qualitative military edge, and would probably lead to an increase in nuclear proliferation in the region.
Lastly, violence in the Arab sector runs rampant, with an abundance of illegal weaponry and a record number of murder victims in 2023, a trajectory which shows no sign of slowing down as Ben Gvir shifts the focus of the police to other issues.
As catastrophe looms and Israel marches towards a one-state reality that will endanger the Jewish and democratic nature of our state, we urgently require capable and unifying leadership that not only acknowledges the reality but takes decisive steps to rectify the damage. After years of wandering and tragedy, the Jewish people deserve a prosperous, safe country that’s both Jewish and democratic, led by trustworthy leaders that are governed by the greater good, not personal gain.
- Alon Sackstein led a strategic research team in the Research and Analysis division (RAD) of Israel Defense Intelligence (IDI), also known as Aman. He’s an IDI captain and holds a Master’s degree in diplomacy and security from Tel Aviv University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in political science from Bar-Ilan University. These viewpoints represent his opinion.