IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has expressed his concern to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that recent threats from members of the army’s reserve forces not to report for duty in protest of the government’s plan to radically overhaul the judiciary could expand to the point of harming the military’s operational capabilities, according to leaks from the conversation carried by Hebrew media on Sunday.
“I’m very worried by the spread of refusal to serve, and of the discussion about the refusal to serve. Already, this could harm the IDF’s operational capacity,” Halevi reportedly told Netanyahu.
A nearly identical warning was reportedly shared by Halevi to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who also passed it along to Netanyahu.
Earlier in the day, nearly all reservist members of an Israeli Air Force fighter jet squadron announced that they would not show up to one of their planned training sessions later this week in protest of the overhaul. The 69th Squadron pilots were the latest, and most high-profile, group of reservists to announce such a move. On Friday, dozens of pilots on active reserve duty met with the Air Force chief to express wariness about their continued service in light of the coalition’s judicial overhaul plan and other policies and statements.
During his conversation with Netanyahu, Channel 12 reported, Halevi also pushed back on Netanyahu’s branding of the protesting reservists as “anarchists.” Still, the network said he had recently passed along a message to senior officers in the IDF directing them to speak to their soldiers about the protests and to take a stand against any refusal to serve.
Little additional information was provided regarding Halevi’s conversation with Gallant, which was said to have taken place in recent days, though the Walla news site quoted a source familiar with the details of the discussion who said, “There is a real fear that if this continues, there will be no one to fly Mabam missions.”
Mabam is a Hebrew acronym for the “campaign between the wars” and refers to military operations that are carried out during unofficial war times, such as covert strikes in Syria and against Iranian nuclear sites.
Netanyahu’s, Gallant’s and Halevi’s offices all said they would not comment on reports regarding their private conversations.
Gallant on Sunday called for the coalition to hold negotiations with the opposition in order to reach some sort of compromise on the former’s judicial overhaul plans.
“The situation today requires us to talk, and quickly,” the defense minister said in a video statement.
“We face heavy and complex external challenges. Any call for refusal harms the functioning of the IDF and its ability to carry out its tasks,” he added, taking issue with reservists who have decided not to report for duty. “I call upon every soldier and officer: The IDF is the protector of Israel, and the reserve army is the source of its great power. Leave the political debate outside of the army.”
Earlier in the day, Benny Gantz, who heads the opposition’s National Unity party and previously served as defense minister and IDF chief, also urged reservists to continue reporting for duty, despite any objections they may have to the judicial overhaul effort.
“I call on reservists and those in active service — continue to serve, to show up no matter what,” Gantz said at a faction meeting for his party in the Knesset. “To protect this country with protests and to protect it with [military] forays… despite the pain.”
Netanyahu, one of the main focuses of the protests against the overhaul that have swept the country, responded to the news of the 69th Squadron’s planned training session boycott with a call to show up. “When we are called to the reserves, we always go. We are one nation,” he tweeted along with a picture of himself from his time as a reservist.
כשקוראים למילואים אנחנו תמיד מתייצבים. אנחנו עם אחד ???????? pic.twitter.com/c8RKeCdkKW
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) March 5, 2023
Thirty-seven of the 40 reservists in the IAF’s 69th Squadron said they would be boycotting the Wednesday exercises. The squadron — known as the Hammers — operates the F-15I fighter jets out of the Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel.
In 2007, the squadron carried out a strike on Syria’s nuclear reactor, in a mission known to much of the world as Operation Orchard, and in the IDF as Outside the Box. It has also been involved in carrying out hundreds of strikes against Iranian entrenchment in Syria over the past decade, receiving a citation from the military chief in 2018 over the operations.
The reservists notified IAF chief Tomer Bar and the commander of the squadron of their intention to not show up for training this week, but said they would report for duty if required for operational missions.
Commenting on the 69th Squadron’s decision during a Sunday evening interview with Channel 12, former Israel Air Force chief Eitan Ben Eliyahu lamented, “There’s never been anything like this.”
“We’ve crossed the red lines,” he added, urging Netanyahu to speak to the protesting pilots.
Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan took to Twitter to tear into members of the 69th Squadron.
“Pilots who condition the security of the citizens on the results of the elections are narcissistic. I’m not interested in what they did for the country. Assistant kindergarten teachers also do quite a bit for the country,” she wrote.
Labor head Merav Michaeli also took to Twitter on Sunday in a message that praised Israeli pilots, whom she said were raising the alarm and “reminding us that the spirit of their service is for the sake of a democratic country, based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence” and not in favor of “a dictator who is trampling on our rights.”
Michaeli later also said it was “amusing to read criticism about the refusal to serve from members of the coalition,” a majority of which “sanctifies..the evasion of IDF service,” a reference to ultra-Orthodox parties whose communities do not serve in the Israeli military in large numbers.
According to Channel 12, there were concerns on Sunday that what happened in the 69th squadron could spread to medium-level-ranked pilots who are currently on active duty, which would have even larger ramifications.
The network also said that a handful of reservists in the elite 8200 intelligence unit had notified their commanding officers via WhatsApp that they would not be reporting for duty this week.
Reservist pilots train frequently and missing multiple sessions could impact competency.
On Friday, dozens of senior pilots held an unprecedented meeting with IAF chief Tomer Bar in which they reportedly expressed major concerns about their continued service in the reserves.
According to Channel 12, the pilots, reservists who continue to do active service, expressed fear that the new hardline government’s conduct could expose them to prosecution by global bodies such as the International Criminal Court.
Later on Friday, Bar penned a letter to all IAF reserve members that was leaked to the media, in which he wrote that he expects them to continue to report for duty. He clarified that the IDF and the IAF would operate “according to the moral standards and according to the values and spirit of the IDF — without any change.”
Among other IDF service-people who have announced that they would not be reporting for reserve duty was opposition chair Yair Lapid’s former spokesman. “I will not carry out my reserve service duties under a regime that tries to destroy us, and I will not report for reserve duty in an undemocratic country,” Roy Konkol wrote in a social media post.
Netanyahu tweeted an article on Konkol’s decision and called on Lapid to condemn his former spokesman’s decision “and make it clear to everyone that there is no place for desertion or the politicization of the IDF.”
Lapid responded that he does not agree with Konkol’s decision, but indicated that he understood where his former aide was coming from. “The IDF is the people’s army and I oppose all refusal to serve. I will argue with him about this a lot, but I love him and know that even if he is wrong, he is doing it out of patriotism and true fear for the fate of the country.”