IAF chief to officers: Keep calling on reservists to show up

161 senior Air Force reservists bow out of volunteer duty to protest overhaul

In response to government advancing controversial legislation, reserve officers in key roles say they are not able to fulfill duty under ‘a dictatorship,’ effective immediately

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

File: Israeli Air Force pilots walk to their plane during the 'Blue Flag' international exercise at the Ovda airbase in southern Israel on October 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
File: Israeli Air Force pilots walk to their plane during the 'Blue Flag' international exercise at the Ovda airbase in southern Israel on October 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

More than 160 reservists filling key roles across the Israel Air Force said they were suspending their voluntary reserve duty, effective immediately, claiming that the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary were turning the country into a “dictatorship.”

In an open letter announcing the decision, the senior officers said they were responding to the government advancing legislation aimed at preventing courts from reviewing government and ministers’ decisions based on their “reasonableness.”

The announcement was the latest to send shockwaves through the military, which is struggling to stem a growing flood of reserves troops dropping from volunteer duty to protest the overhaul.

In an immediate response Tuesday night, IAF chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar told his subordinate officers that he was looking into the letter, while telling them to continue to speak with reservists and convince them to show up for duty.

The government aims to pass a bill restricting use of the so-called “reasonableness” clause by the end of the month as it pushes ahead with a controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary.

“The final approval of these bills is a formal and short process, but one that will dramatically change the essence and face of the country, and will transform it from a democracy to a dictatorship,” the 161 reservists said.

“We hereby say that we are not ready to fulfill the tasks assigned to us, under a regime, in which the foundations of democracy are crudely removed one by one, and the opening, through which [the government] continues to march the country towards a full-scale dictatorship, widens,” they continued.

Members of the Brothers in Arms protest group demonstrate against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the home of Speaker of the Knesset Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv, on June 6, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The list of officers includes two brigadier generals, five colonels, and numerous lieutenant colonels, majors, and captains, who serve as staff in the IAF headquarters, as drone pilots, intelligence officers, and in other key roles.

Separately, Channel 13 news reported that at least 100 reserves pilots notified their commanders that they were stopping showing up for duty in protest of the judicial overhaul. The pilots were summoned for talks with their commanders, after which a decision would be made regarding their continued service in the IAF, the report said.

“A complex period and many [media] publications this evening… we will look into the details of the letter and its meanings,” Maj. Gen. Bar said in the message to his subordinates on Tuesday night.

“However, the responsibility assigned to us has not changed. We must continue to speak with the reservists and conscripts. Call on the reservists to continue reporting for duty,” the IAF chief said.

“I rely on you. Forward this message to the commanders of the squadrons and operational units,” Bar added.

Israeli Air Force chief Tomer Bar speaks at an event in honor of the 75th anniversary of the IAF’s first-ever strike mission 75 years ago, at the Ad Halom Park near Ashdod, May 29, 2023. (Flash90)

Earlier Tuesday, military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said calls by reservists to refuse to serve in protest of the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system cause harm to the Israel Defense Forces.

In recent weeks, protests against the judicial overhaul have rippled through the IDF, with reservists from dozens of units joining in threats to cease their voluntary service. According to a list published Sunday, nearly 4,000 reservists have signed letters threatening to not show up for voluntary duty in protest of the planned changes to the judiciary.

Defense officials and politicians on both sides of the aisle have warned that the mass refusals could make Israel more vulnerable to outside threats.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) meets with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 16, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

“We are allowed to disagree, we are allowed to debate and discuss, we are allowed to protest, but we are not allowed to harm, in the name of one political opinion or another, the IDF,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in an appeal to reservists Tuesday. “We need all the soldiers and all the commanders.”

On Sunday, Gallant reportedly held an emergency meeting with Halevi and other top officers to discuss the possible fallout if military reservists — particularly pilots — stop showing up for volunteer duty in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul.

Gallant and Halevi were considering speaking in the coming days with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to relay the concerns over the potential negative impact on military readiness, according to leaks published by Hebrew-language media.

Members of the IDF General Staff, a forum of senior commanders responsible for the various branches and departments of the military, reportedly warned Gallant of the growing list of reservists who have threatened to suspend their volunteer duty, which could impact the military’s readiness.

Unlike most reservists who are called up for duty with a formal order from the IDF, pilots and other special forces are expected to train and carry out missions more frequently and in a voluntary manner due to the nature of their positions.

The military has said that it would discipline or potentially dismiss active-duty soldiers who refuse to show up for duty when ordered to, but stressed that no action would be taken against reservists who only threaten not to show up.

It is unclear what measures would be taken against reservists who do not show up for voluntary duty.

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)

Reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have been warning in recent months they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become if the government’s overhaul plans are realized.

The calls to refuse to show up for reserve duty started roiling the military earlier this year, as the judicial overhaul was first announced and as it advanced, growing in number even as they were condemned by senior politicians in both the opposition and the coalition. The threats again increased in recent weeks, as the government resumed moving ahead in the Knesset with some elements of the plan, after largely pausing the legislation in March following pressure by reservists on Gallant.

Gallant in late March publicly warned that the rift over the overhaul was causing divides in the military that posed a tangible threat to Israeli security. In response to that warning, Netanyahu ordered Gallant’s firing, a move that sparked intensified national protests, in turn leading Netanyahu to temporarily suspend the legislation for three months and withdraw Gallant’s dismissal.

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