By Jonathan Saul
HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) - Every morning Amir sets up a protest stand to warn passersby that Israeli democracy is in danger from hotly contested legislation to curb the courts. But he's a very unusual protester - a former Mossad spy who never before questioned the state for which he once risked his life on foreign missions.
Amir, who declined to be fully named due to his sensitive previous secret roles, is among former veterans of Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, who are taking to the streets in protest at their government's judiciary overhaul.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalist-religious coalition passed the first phase of the legislation, limiting Supreme Court powers to void government decisions deemed "unreasonable", despite months of protests by hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
They have drawn the support of reservists in elite special forces units and fighter pilots who have threatened not to show up for duty, and the dissension has spread among former members of the Mossad.
Some serving Mossad officers have also joined the protests, which they are permitted to do, two ex-officers told Reuters.
In Amir's case, he said he had suspended for now the advisory assistance he had provided to the Mossad after retiring.
"I served different administrations faithfully for 20 years, even ones that did not reflect my political views. I accepted the outcome of the election last year but when they (the current government) changed the rules of the game, that was it. "They have crossed a red line and have broken their contract. People like myself are no longer bound by our duty," Amir said in the Mediterranean coastal city of Herzliya, close to where he has his stand.
Morale concerns are emerging within the Mossad with some inside the highly secretive agency considering early retirement, according to chat messages seen by Reuters.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office declined to comment. The government denies the judicial reforms jeopardise democracy, saying the top court has been "over-interventionist".
A former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, told Reuters there are no signs such disaffection is affecting its vital abilities.
Reuters spoke with two other former Mossad officials who are also involved in the protests and more fearful of the impact the legislation will have on Israel's security system.
LEGENDARY SPY SERVICE
The decision by former spies to take part in protests raises the stakes, touching a legendary institution that has helped Israel defeat Arab states in many conflicts and wage a shadow war against arch-foe Iran. "Many friends and colleagues of mine who served together feel that what is happening is damaging the security power of Israel," said Haim Tomer, former head of Mossad's intelligence gathering division and of its international liaison wing. Tomer said Mossad was viewed with "a deep sense of respect" abroad. "Whether this deep sense of respect will survive, I don't know." Mossad has long been viewed as one of the world's most capable spy services. It has carried out spectacular missions such as hunting down Arab enemies through Europe, capturing Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and, with agents disguised as scuba diving instructors, spiriting Ethiopian Jews out to Israel.
"When you are on an operation, you need to have belief in the system and you block out everything else," said Gil, another Mossad veteran who withheld his full name. "Who's to say now that you risk your life and you won't have doubts whether it's worth it, with everything going on and with this government."
Concerns over Israel's deterrence capabilities are being noticed by the country's enemies across the Middle East who have convened top-level meetings to weigh the turmoil and how they might capitalise on it, informed sources have told Reuters.
Yossi Cohen, another former Mossad chief, spoke of his concerns for "Israel's immediate national security".
"At a time when the Iranian threat looms over us from multiple fronts, we must ensure Israel's security remains unharmed," Cohen wrote in a July 23 commentary in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
(Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich)