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Netanyahu urges army chief to contain reservist protests


TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday urged the army chief of staff to contain a wave of protest within the ranks over a controversial government plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Netanyahu’s remarks come as Israel is embroiled in a major crisis that has sent tens of thousands of people to protest every week for the past two months. The division over Netanyahu’s plans to change the justice system has not spared the country’s military, its most trusted institution, where many reservists have pledged not to show up in the face of what they see as impending regime change.

As of Sunday, more than 700 elite officers from the Air Force, special forces and Mossad said they would stop volunteering. The typically taboo talk of refusing to serve in an army that is mandatory for most Jews and highly respected by the Jewish majority underscores how deeply the revision plan has divided Israel.

Netanyahu has rejected a compromise plan proposed by the country’s ceremonial president designed to defuse the crisis. He made no mention of reaching an agreement with opponents during remarks to his cabinet, instead saying he would not accept “anarchy”, listing demands that his security chiefs stop roadblocks by protesters, incitement against him and his ministers and rein in the refusal to serve by a growing number of reservists.

“I expect the military chief of staff and heads of security departments to aggressively combat the refusal to serve. There is no place for refusal to serve in public discourse,” he said. “A state that wants to exist cannot tolerate such phenomena and we will not tolerate it.”

The military did not immediately comment on Netanyahu’s comments. Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzl Halevi has reportedly warned Netanyahu that the reservists’ protest threatens to damage the army’s capabilities. He has promised to make sure that doesn’t happen and to keep the military out of public debate over the overhaul.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted in response that if Netanyahu suspended the overhaul, reservists would stop refusing to serve.

The outcry from within the military comes as Israel is embroiled in a years-long battle with the Palestinians, and as Israel’s archenemy Iran races on with its nuclear program. Israel says Iran is developing a nuclear bomb — an accusation Tehran denies.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that the law changes will be implemented responsibly while protecting the basic rights of all Israelis. His government — the most right-wing government ever — says the overhaul is designed to correct an imbalance that has overpowered the courts and prevented lawmakers from carrying out the will of the voting public.

Critics say it will upend Israel’s delicate system of checks and balances and slide the country into authoritarianism. They also say it could give Netanyahu a chance to evade conviction in his corruption trial.

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