HERZLIYA, Israel — They contended with bloody uprisings, destabilizing wars and even the assassination of a prime minister during their service. But for dozens of former Israeli security commanders, the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government are the biggest threat yet to the country’s future.
In unprecedented opposition, more than 180 former senior officials from the Mossad, the Shin Bet domestic security agency, the military and the police have united against steps they say will shatter Israel’s resilience in the face of mounting threats from the West Bank, Lebanon and Iran.
“We were used to dealing with external threats,” said Tamir Pardo, a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency and a leader of the new group. “We’ve been through wars, through military operations and all of a sudden you realize that the greatest threat to the state of Israel is internal.”
Netanyahu’s government, made up of ultranationalist and ultra-religious parties, was formed last year and immediately pressed ahead with a contentious plan to reshape the country’s judiciary. Senior government ministers have proposed a litany of steps critics view as undemocratic, including increased gender segregation in public spaces and giving an outspoken homophobe control over some educational content.
Critics say the overhaul will change the very foundation of Israel and remove the checks that would prevent the government’s more radical policies from becoming law. The government says the overhaul is meant to restore power to elected lawmakers and curb an overly interventionist and liberal-leaning judicial system.
The plan has sparked mass protests and opposition from a broad swath of Israeli society. Top legal officials, business leaders, the country’s booming high-tech sector and military reservists have spoken out against it.
Former security chiefs have too, as individuals. But now, dozens, some of whom were appointed by Netanyahu, have banded together against the government’s intentions, hoping their chorus of widely respected voices will bolster their case.
“We are the people who were there, who fought all the wars,” said Noam Tibon, a retired military major general. “We decided there needs to be a strong, ethical and clear voice that calls for and works to stop the process of destruction of the country.”
In a country familiar with wars and armed conflict, Israel’s Jewish majority holds its security establishment in high regard. Military service is compulsory for most Jewish males, which has fostered intimate ties between ordinary Israelis and the armed forces.
The group of former officers, dubbing itself the “Generals’ Protest,” reads like a who’s who list of well-known figures. Former military chief of staff and defense minister Moshe Yaalon and former Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon, who served when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, are among the prominent names.
While former security officials have in the past largely remained above the political fray, these are extraordinary days, said Idit Shafran Gittleman, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
“Just as they protected the country physically,” she said, “now they are fighting over the character of the state.”
The movement says it draws members from various political leanings but has no political aspirations itself. Its leaders say they will disband once they feel the looming threat to Israel’s security is removed.
The former generals, like the broader protest movement, have not taken a clear stand on the Palestinian issue and Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank. While individual members have spoken out, including Pardo, who told The Associated Press that Israel’s rule in the occupied West Bank amounts to apartheid, the group says it isn’t its focus.
The Palestinians and other critics say this is a significant blind spot for a movement that says it is defending democracy. But Israeli anti-occupation activists joining the protests believe the pervasive talk about democratic values and the ultranationalist makeup of the government is prompting an awakening over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The commanders say Israel’s cohesion as a society is crumbling and that it won’t be able to withstand the volley of challenges it’s now facing: surging fighting with the Palestinians, tensions with the Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah or Iran.
“Israel didn’t win wars because of its planes or its batteries or its tanks. It won mainly because of its human capital, its social cohesion, its brotherhood,” said former Israeli police chief Moshe Karadi, a group member. “That is breaking down. That is collapsing.”
The overhaul has exposed longstanding divisions in Israeli society, between those who support maintaining a liberal, Western-facing character and those who prefer to see Israel as more religious and conservative.
The disagreements have most immediately and perhaps destructively affected the military, the group of retired generals says. Not only have reservists, the backbone of the country’s armed forces, pledged to refuse to serve if the overhaul moves forward. The divide has seeped into the regular ranks.
The ex-commanders also oppose a draft bill that could grant blanket exemptions from the military draft to all ultra-Orthodox Jews. If the bill is passed, it would expand a current system of more limited exemptions that critics already say is unfair. They say government ministers are unravelling the country’s social fabric by publicly lambasting security services or soldiers who appear to oppose the government.
Karadi said the government’s steps are affecting all aspects of Israeli security, including the police.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has been promised a national guard force that critics have likened to a personal militia that would undermine the already overburdened police force.
Ben-Gvir, who oversees the police, has drawn accusations that he is politicizing the force. He has called on police to take a tougher stance against anti-government protesters, and a popular Tel Aviv police commander who regularly clashed with Ben-Gvir over the protests resigned in July under what he said was political pressure.
Pardo, who was appointed by Netanyahu in 2011, said the prime minister was once attentive to the counsel of his security chiefs. He says Netanyahu is now focused on political survival, especially since he was charged with corruption.
The generals group has its own critics.
Amir Avivi, president and founder of Israel Defense and Security Forum, a hawkish group of former military officers, said the generals are obsessed with Netanyahu’s downfall and misusing their security credentials to further a political message that itself may harm Israel’s security.
“We see a discourse that is very shallow, full of slogans and political. This is not the type of speech that is expected from officers,” he said.
Generals’ Protest group members have spoken at mass protests against the overhaul and are quietly lobbying coalition legislators.
They also insist that they don’t oppose the government itself, which they say was legitimately elected, nor that they are some kind of military junta hoping to overthrow it.
“We are people who sacrificed their lives and careers for the security of the state,” said Pardo. “Maybe it’s worth listening to us.”