IAF chief: Slander of pilots, others has caused harm that will take years to fix

Amid threats by reservists to stop volunteer duty in protest of overhaul, Tomer Bar laments that current discourse upends a service model that ‘worked excellently for 75 years’

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

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)
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)

The chief of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, said Thursday that his force is continuing to operate as usual despite calls by reservists to not show up for volunteer duty in protest of the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system, but added that the current discourse is causing great damage that will take “years to fix.”

“I feel a heavy responsibility on my shoulders,” said Bar in remarks provided by the Israel Defense Forces. “My interest is in the readiness and cohesion of the [Air Force] and managing to carry out the heavy tasks assigned to it.”

“In the last few weeks and days, the [Air Force] continues to operate in all arenas and in highly significant operational incidents,” Bar said.

“The harsh statements that have been made toward the army and the Air Force, standing and reserves, in recent days, have no place in society and they have caused great damage to the cohesion of the force. I strongly condemn them,” he said.

“I continue to stand by the principle of continuing to show up for duty and will continue to stand by it. The force has many challenges, and we do not have the right not to complete them,” he said.

“The service model in the Air Force has worked excellently for 75 years. This model enables the aerial safety net for our citizens’ security. If we continue harming that — it will take years to fix this,” Bar added.

Israeli Air Force pilots throw their caps in the air during a graduation ceremony at the Hatzerim air force base, December 28, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Protests against the judicial overhaul have roiled the IDF for months, with hundreds of military reservists having announced in recent days they will no longer volunteer to carry out their specialized duties — among them air force pilots — if the government advances its plans.

The threats have ramped up as the government pushes a bill restricting the use of the so-called “reasonableness” judicial test, part of its controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Most Israelis who complete their mandatory military national service are required to attend annual reserve duty, but those who served in special units — including pilots — are expected to volunteer to continue carrying out the same duties while in the reserves, a commitment they usually take upon themselves. Due to the nature of their positions, special forces and pilots in reserves show up more frequently for training and missions.

Many reservists 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.

Israeli military reservists sign a declaration of refusal to report for duty to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, July 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Earlier Thursday, the IDF slammed a video circulated online, including by ministers, depicting IAF pilots refusing to help ground troops attacked by enemy forces due to the formers’ perceived support for the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.

In a statement, military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the staged video aimed to cause “internal incitement” within the IDF, and should be condemned.

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

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. The IDF said it would handle each case individually, including possible suspension, dismissal, or jail sentences.

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