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Former IDF commanders in Washington to appeal to Biden on Israel’s judicial overhaul

As the Israeli government fast-tracks its judicial overhaul plans, former IDF officers are hoping that pressure by the Biden administration could derail them before it's too late.
Julia Nikhinson/Getty Images

Three former IDF senior commanders traveled to Washington on Monday in a bid to warn American legislators and other decision-makers against the judicial overhaul advanced by the Netanyahu government. The three represent hundreds of Israeli reservists seeking to lobby the Biden administration to intervene in what they describe as a coup.

Col. (res.) Yoav Rosenberg, formerly head of the research division of Israeli military intelligence, discussed the letter with Al-Monitor. "We intend to present a letter addressed to President Joe Biden and to anyone capable of influencing policy," he read from the document. "It is signed by hundreds of reserve officers and asks the Americans to use their influence to thwart the moves of the governing coalition. We need your immediate help."

Rosenberg traveled to the United States along with Brig. Gen. Roy Riftin, formerly commander of the IDF Artillery Corps, and Col. Ofir Bar, an F-16 combat pilot. They are meeting with Jewish communities and administration and congressional officials to present them with urgent appeals against the judicial overhaul.

Rosenberg noted that on a government fund-raising drive in Washington, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has been snubbed by administration officials over his call to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwara. In contrast, he and his companions had managed to set up meetings with influential officials.

Rosenberg summed up the message his group is delivering. “We are drowning,” he said. “Any delay could seal our fate,” he added, referring to the pace of the legislative blitz being pushed through the Knesset.

The officers' campaign falls into a grey area, seeking foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of their own country. Rosenberg is not deterred. "Netanyahu also complained about the policies of Israeli governments that he didn't like, in English, in the US and everywhere else in the world,” Rosenberg noted, insisting that his group’s actions are completely legal and there is nothing wrong with holding meetings and presenting opposing views.

But the campaign is prompting strong criticism from some who say it verges on treason and argue that the United States must not meddle in Israel’s domestic affairs, just as Israel does not meddle in US affairs.

That argument seems to hold little water. For example, Netanyahu made no bones about his support for Republican presidential candidate Senator Mitt Romney who ran against President Barak Obama in 2012, a crass move that still smarts in the Democratic Party.

Either way, the three envoys believe the United States holds the key to stopping Israel’s constitutional crisis, arguing that strong statements by Biden could tilt the scales. In his only public comment on the matter so far, last month Biden urged consensus among all parties on such major legislation but did not directly refer to its content.

The commanders believe that Israel's risk of international boycotts and isolation must be made clear to the Netanyahu government. The fact that a senior government minister is being treated like a leper by Israel’s most important ally and foreign aid donor should serve as a warning. Netanyahu himself has yet to be invited to the White House since resuming office in late December, and no invitation appears to be in the pipeline.

The cold shoulder from the Biden administration is just one of several major foreign policy problems dogging Netanyahu. The prospects of a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu’s most coveted diplomatic goal, seem to have receded. Not only did the Saudis just renew diplomatic relations with Iran, but they barred Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen from an international tourism conference they are hosting. Cool winds are also blowing from Arab states that have normalized relations with Israel under the 2020 Abraham Accords, including from the Emirates, which has apparently dropped plans for a planned visit by Netanyahu.

The largest defense export deal in Israel's history, the sale of Arrow missile batteries to Germany, is currently suspended. As co-developer and funder of the system, the United States was supposed to approve the deal, but is apparently having second thoughts. Might it have anything to do with the attitude of senior White House officials toward Netanyahu and his coup?

"We are not telling the Americans what to do, but I think there is room for them to hear all the voices from Israel, to understand that this is not a small internal debate but an event that could irreversibly change the face of Israel in a matter of weeks,” Rosenberg told Al-Monitor. “Since we are America's most important friend in the Middle East … we think they need to talk to us and understand the details. We're all reserve officers, high-tech people, and we just want to explain what's going on.” He noted that Israel would not have won its disastrous 1973 war with the Arab world without US help.

The deep changes being pushed by the far-right government will have implications for national security and regional stability, Rosenberg added. “What you see now is just the preparation. More legislation is coming; the worst is yet to come. Americans should know that."

Back home, the crisis of trust between the government and growing numbers of reservists in all arms of the military is intensifying. The commander of the Israeli air force, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, calmed some unrest in the ranks of the IAF's reserve pilots when he retracted his suspension of decorated combat pilot Col. Gilad Peled over accusations that he colluded with fellow pilots to organize a campaign of disobedience. But things are fragile.

"If this continues, if the legislation moves forward, the IAF may lose its operational and professional competence," one pilot told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, "We are not at the end of the event, we are barely at its beginning."

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