IAF chief calls off dismissal of reservist pilot over alleged refusal calls

Military admits head of Air Force Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar was under ‘false impression’ when he suspended Col. (res.) Gilad Peled

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

Outgoing commander of the Ramat David Airbase, Col. Gilad Peled, July 26, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
Outgoing commander of the Ramat David Airbase, Col. Gilad Peled, July 26, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The chief of the Israeli Air Force on Friday returned to service a reservist fighter pilot who had been suspended indefinitely for allegedly leading calls to refuse to show up for duty over the government’s proposal to radically weaken the judiciary.

The reservist officer, Col. (res.) Gilad Peled, had said IAF chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar’s original Thursday decision was unjust and that he would appeal it.

After the pair held a meeting Friday, Bar agreed to resume his active reserve duty and the dismissal was canceled, the Israel Defense Forces said.

In a statement, the military said the IAF had been under the “false impression” that Peled was organizing and coordinating refusal to serve among other reservist pilots, and “came to the conclusion that formal conduct must be refined during this complex period.”

Peled told Bar that there had been a misunderstanding; that he was in fact against refusal, and was not trying to organize pilots to not show up for duty.

“The chief of the Air Force expressed his great appreciation to Col. (res.) Peled and accepted his claim that he was not involved in encouraging refusal among the reservists,” the statement said.

Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, the new chief of the Israeli Air Force, at a ceremony on April 4, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Peled, the former commander of the Ramat David Airbase, gave interviews with Channel 13 news and the Kan public broadcaster over the past week on reservist concerns over the judicial overhaul.

On Thursday, the IDF had said Peled was suspended indefinitely over his “conduct around the current events.” The suspension was announced after Peled met with Bar Wednesday evening regarding “his continued reserve service.”

There has been a growing number of reservists from numerous units warning they will not serve if the coalition proceeds with its plans to shackle the justice system, which opponents say will leave Israel a weakened democracy or even a dictatorship.

Israeli Air Force officer Col. Gilad Peled in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

The suspension came after 37 of 40 reservist pilots from the IAF’s 69th Squadron said they would boycott one day of training in protest of the judicial overhaul. The key squadron — known as the Hammers — operates the F-15I fighter jets out of the Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel.

On Wednesday, a group of IAF officers warned IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi that the majority of their fellow active-reserve pilots would cease reporting for duty if the government passes the judicial overhaul. The warning appeared to be the most far-reaching voiced by members of the security forces thus far, as opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul effort expanded deeper into the military’s ranks.

The IDF chief pledged to speak immediately with government representatives as well as in the media about the importance of speaking respectfully about the military reserve members who have chosen to protest the judicial overhaul, amid a series of disparaging comments made recently against them by government ministers and right-wing activists.

Halevi said refusing to report for reserve duty was a “red line” that he would not accept. However, the military chief added that he would “ensure that the tasks the IDF carries out correspond to its values ​​and are carried out legally.”

The latter comment appeared to reference concerns voiced by pilots who met with Bar last week and told him they would refuse to carry out illegal orders, citing as an example a statement by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich calling for the government to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwara.

Smotrich apologized for the remark again on Wednesday and said he did not realize it would be interpreted as a command by officers who fear that there will no longer be any checks on the government’s power if the overhaul is passed.

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)

The reservists meeting Bar last week also assured him that they would continue to do active service but expressed fear that the new hardline government’s conduct and judicial proposals could expose them to prosecution by global bodies, such as the International Criminal Court.

Israel has long argued against such probes, pointing to the strength and independence of its own judiciary, which is responsible for investigating incidents of wrongdoing by Israeli forces. But critics of the government’s legal overhaul warn that efforts to restrict the High Court of Justice’s power will rob the country of legitimacy in the international arena.

Military, government and opposition leaders have decried the protests by soldiers, saying the army should be kept separate from politics and warning that mass insubordination would harm national security.

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