Home » Deep Divisions Lurk Behind Israel’s United Wartime Front

Deep Divisions Lurk Behind Israel’s United Wartime Front

Rocked by Hamas’ horrific attack, Israel’s government and military have projected a united front in the weeks since the country launched its offensive in the Gaza Strip. 

But that front was built on deep divisions within Israel, the fissures of which are beginning to resurface. 

Not long ago, “we were afraid that the government would try to take our democracy,” said an Israel Defense Forces soldier stationed in southern Israel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to talk to the media.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced backlash for comments seeming to absolve himself of responsibility for the attack — forcing him to issue a rare apology and delete the statement. The exchange was the latest to inflame an explosive rift between his government and the military that had been building in the months before Oct. 7.

In the post on X, Netanyahu said he was never “warned of war intentions on the part of Hamas” and accused intelligence chiefs of reassuring him “time and time again” that the terrorist group had been “deterred.”

National Unity Party leader and minister Benny Gantz, who previously was Israel’s defense minister, was among those to call on Netanyahu to retract the statement, saying: “When we are at war, our leaders need to show responsibility.”

The usually unwavering Netanyahu was quick to apologize, making a rare admission: “I was wrong.” But while Israel’s war Cabinet quickly snapped back into formation after the snafu, some soldiers on the ground say it’s what happened before Oct. 7 that Netanyahu should regret.

“I deeply feel that his legacy is over,” IDF Staff Sgt. Yiftach Golov said. “He’s going to be at the very dark places of Israel’s legacy.”

Before Hamas’ attack, Golov, a reserve soldier, was taking part in weekly protests that rocked Israel for months over Netanyahu’s plans for sweeping judicial changes that would have severely weakened the Supreme Court, with thousands of people, including military reservists, taking to the streets to rally against the effort. 

Golov, a spokesperson for Brothers and Sisters in Arms, an organization of reservists from various units protesting the planned changes, said he was also among roughly 10,000 reservists who signed a declaration in July saying that if the legislation moved ahead, they would not respond to the call to duty. 

He and other reservists believed that if Israel pushed ahead with the judicial changes, it would break the “contract” that underpins the obligation for mandatory reserve service. “We will not serve a dictatorship,” he said.

Israel’s military had acknowledged an increase in requests to abstain from service at the time, according to Reuters, a development that sent shock waves through a country that prides itself on its military. The IDF did not respond to a question about the reported increase in requests to abstain from service. Netanyahu’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment from NBC News.

Despite the outcry, in July, the government passed into law the first of a series of planned changes: the “reasonableness bill,” which was designed to remove the power of the Supreme Court and lower courts to overrule government decisions that were found to be “extremely unreasonable,” a move critics said threatened to undermine democracy in Israel. 

The Supreme Court had said it would hear appeals against the bill, but the matter was shelved last month when the current conflict broke out.

Warned to stay ‘vigilant’

While concern over the planned changes has been pushed aside for now, some believe the issue and the widespread division it caused may have made Israel appear weak to its enemies ahead of the Oct. 7 attack. 

In the months before Oct. 7, such concerns were repeatedly raised, with Israel’s air force chief, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, telling his forces in July to stay “vigilant and prepared.” 

“It is possible that at a time like this, they will try to test the frontiers, our cohesion and our alertness,” he said, referring to Israel’s enemies in an address to troops, according to Reuters

At the time, Netanyahu said the planned judicial changes were “a minor correction” to an “activist” court. “It’s described as the end of Israeli democracy — I think that’s silly, and when the dust settles, everybody will see it,” he told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an interview on “Good Morning America.”

Golov said that “instead of actually being supremely alert and vigilant and just listening” to the warnings, Netanyahu brushed them off and pushed ahead with the planned changes. 

Golov, who has a doctorate in biology, said he agreed with Bar’s concerns, saying he believes the government’s push for judicial changes was likely to have made Israel appear as if it had a weakened “immune system” to its enemies.

“If you ask me, a host with a nonfunctional immune system is the best for a pathogen to penetrate,” he said. 

A mid-ranking IDF officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as she is not authorized to speak to the media, said there was a “sense of frustration that maybe we spent so much time focusing on, or maybe being divided, that we sort of missed possibly something really big that was happening in the background.”

Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a center based in Tel Aviv that says its mission is to strengthen the foundations of Israeli democracy, said he also believed it was possible that Hamas, to some extent, “jumped the gun” and mistook the “internal processes within Israel as an internal weakness.” 

However, he said, even if Hamas leaped on a perceived opportunity to attack, he believes plans for such an assault would most likely have been in the works for some time, regardless of the political situation within Israel.

And, he said, if Hamas thought the attack would weaken Israel, it was wrong, with the Oct. 7 ambush bringing many Israelis together and invoking a sweeping sense of unity within the military. 

‘It’s a paradox’

Golov said that in a matter of days, Brothers and Sisters in Arms has gone from organizing protests to focusing on defending Israel while also coordinating efforts to support those affected by Hamas’ attack. 

“You won’t find even one person right now that is not 100% dedicated to defending the country,” he said of Israeli military members.

An IDF spokesperson said there has been “massive enlistment for reserve service all over Israel,” with more than 350,000 people having reported for duty in less than 48 hours after the attack.

Nimrod Palmach, a reservist who raced to southern Israel the morning of Oct. 7 after he heard about the attack unfolding near Gaza’s border, said he was relieved to see unity restored to Israeli troops.

“It’s a paradox,” said Palmach, who said he was “on the other side politically” of those opposed to the proposed judicial changes. “On the one hand, it’s a super sad time and a shocking time, and on the other hand, it’s very good, and it’s giving me a lot of joy,” he said.

Golov said that while he was also glad to see unity restored, he believes that eventually someone will have to take responsibility for the failures that allowed Hamas’ attack to take such a devastating toll.

And even then, he said, “responsibility is not the remedy.”

“All of the government, including the prime minister, they have to be replaced,” he said.

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