ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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'Unity has been very much harmed'

Air force head warns damage to military readiness worsening amid overhaul split

After military confirms some harm to ‘competence,’ Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar reportedly tells dozens of protesting reservists: ‘Instead of preparing for war, I’m dealing only with this’

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

Chief of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar speaks at the Tel Nof air base on August 6, 2023 (Israel Air Force)
Chief of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar speaks at the Tel Nof air base on August 6, 2023 (Israel Air Force)

The chief of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, met Friday with dozens of reservist pilots who have declared they would no longer show up for volunteer duty to protest the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary, warning them that the state of the force’s readiness was “worsening.”

An unconfirmed report by Channel 12 added that that Bar told pilots: “Instead of preparing for war, I’m dealing only with this.”

As the coalition advanced the first major piece of related legislation last month, more than 10,000 reservists who frequently show up for duty on a voluntary basis said they would no longer do so. The reservists, many of whom acted on their threats, have warned 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 Friday meeting with some 60 reservists, which took place at the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, was the latest attempt by senior military officers to convince protesting pilots to show up for duty despite the government advancing the judicial overhaul.

In excerpts provided by the military from the meeting, IAF chief Bar said that “the current assessment is that the Air Force is competent, but there is harm [to its readiness] that is worsening.”

“We shoulder the responsibility for security…While some of you may have issues, we expect you to keep coming,” Bar told the reservists.

Bar told the reservists that the calls to not show up for volunteer duty “harm the IDF.” At the same time, he spoke out against figures criticizing the reservists over their stances, while noting that his job was to keep the force free of any political influence.

“The chief of staff and I condemn in every forum the slander of reserve personnel, as well as all service members,” he said.

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)

According to the Ynet news site, Bar told the reservists that the protesters’ absence was most being felt by training and drill squadrons as well as operational and air control units. He warned it would take time to train replacements, likely hurting plans for large-scale exercises in the fall, according to the unverified comments.

“Unity has been very much harmed,” he was quoted saying. “The air force won’t be the same as it was, even if everyone came back tomorrow.”

Bar last met with reservist pilots in July, before the government advanced the first major judicial overhaul bill.

The Israel Defense Forces has said some damage has been caused to its “competence” by the protesting reservists, many of whom are in the IAF and other key positions.

It is unclear exactly how many of the 10,000 reservists have already stopped showing up for volunteer duty. Organizers of a letter of nearly 1,200 IAF  reservists who announced their intention to end their volunteer service said last month that some 60 percent had notified their commanders that they would no longer show up for duty, after the first overhaul bill was passed.

The military fears further damage could be caused to its battle readiness should more protesting reservists act on their threats. Amid those fears, senior officers have been regularly calling on the protesting reservists to show up for volunteer duty.

The IDF relies heavily on volunteering reservists, especially pilots, for its routine activities. Unlike most reservists who are called up for duty with a formal order for several days a year, 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 IAF and other top units also rely on veterans to volunteer and train the newer generation with their expertise.

Defense officials have said pilots could harm their competency by taking breaks from their frequent training exercises, and it would take a significant amount of time to restore their flying abilities.

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