1,000 retired pilots announce support for reservists halting training over overhaul

In letter, former IAF personnel say ‘volunteering for reserves can only happen in a democracy’; Rafael employees warn of consequences for arms industry of judicial shakeup

Illustrative: Three pilots stand in front of an F-16 fighter jet as it takes off from the Israeli Air Force's 117th Squadron, which was closed on September 30, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Three pilots stand in front of an F-16 fighter jet as it takes off from the Israeli Air Force's 117th Squadron, which was closed on September 30, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Nearly 1,000 retired Israel Air Force pilots on Saturday pledged their support for reservist personnel who have notified their units they will not be reporting for a weekly flight session in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

“Volunteering for reserves can only happen in a democracy,” the retired pilots wrote in the letter cited by the Walla news site.

“The values ​​on which the pilots were raised over generations do not allow them to continue serving the country that is changing its face from democracy to dictatorship,” they said.

“We, the past pilots, stand behind the active pilots in their decision. We call on the government: Stop the legislative train, do not push the pilots and other reservists out of volunteering,” the letter added.

On Friday, around 200 reserve pilots, who fly combat missions, helicopters, and transport planes, said they would skip next week’s training following the announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night that the government will move forward with its plan to overhaul the judiciary, despite widespread public protest.

The failure to report for weekly training sessions has serious implications because pilots who miss them are not certified to fly operational missions.

File: An IAF F-15I fighter jet of the 69th squadron takes off from Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel, during a pilots graduation ceremony, June 22, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Hundreds of IAF officers and military reservists have joined the protests in recent weeks against the hardline coalition’s effort to radically restrict the High Court of Justice’s power, declaring that they won’t report for duty if the overhaul passes. A significant proportion of the protesting reservists have already stopped reporting for duty, further intensifying the pressure against the government.

The trend has sparked deep fears among the security establishment, which has warned Netanyahu that the IDF’s operational capacity is at risk.

Similarly, several employees at the state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems arms firm warned Saturday that senior workers would quit over the judicial overhaul.

“The damage to democracy will seriously damage Rafael and the defense industry. Key employees will retire, the motivation of those remaining will drop, the quality of knowledge and research will deteriorate, and international cooperation and defense deals abroad will be harmed, which will undermine the ability of the defense industry to sustain itself,” said the letter cited by Hebrew-language media outlets.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the nation on the judicial overhaul on March 23, 2023. (Screen capture)

There was some speculation Thursday that the prime minister would agree to halt the overhaul legislation, at least temporarily, in order to allow for substantive negotiations to reach a compromise with the opposition.

Instead, Netanyahu gave a prime-time address in which he said his government will continue to charge ahead with the plan “responsibly,” while aiming to pass a core tenet of the overhaul next week.

Netanyahu’s speech also led to an intensification of the reservists’ protests against the government.

Increasingly, reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which they charge the country will become under the government’s plan.

In addition, soldiers have expressed concern that a lack of international trust in the independence of Israel’s judiciary could expose them to prosecution in international tribunals over actions they were ordered to carry out during service.

Military brass has insisted that the armed services must remain outside any political brawl, but numerous reports have indicated the phenomenon is only growing.

Members of the ‘Brothers in Arms’ IDF reservists organization hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu said during a visit to London on Friday that the refusals could put Israel in “terrible danger.”

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges. There have been weekly mass protests for over two months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders and more.

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