Netanyahu backs removing protesting IDF reservists, reprises call for unity

After Air Force chief reportedly vowed to boot servicemembers who skip training to protest judicial overhaul, premier calls comments ‘clear and valid’ for entire military

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at an army ceremony on April 3, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at an army ceremony on April 3, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday voiced support for Israel Air Force chief Tomer Bar, who reportedly said the day before that reservists who refuse to show up for service in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul would be kicked out of the military.

“The comment by the IAF chief was important and clear, and valid not only for the IAF but the entire IDF,” Netanyahu said at an event at the Tel Nof airbase in central Israel.

“The State of Israel cannot exist without its protective force, and the IDF cannot exist without a hierarchy that is clear, and as solid as steel. We have it, we’ll stand together and we will win,” Netanyahu said at the event, which had been scheduled before Bar’s reported comments.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stressed military discipline during an address at the event.

“When it comes to approving missions, when lives are at risk, there’s no room to waver — what guides us is how we carry out the mission and protect Israeli citizens,” Gallant said. “That’s true for the soldier on the ground or the pilot on an operation, through to the IDF chief, the defense minister, and the prime minister.”

Netanyahu has previously said that military refusals threaten “the foundation of our existence” and put Israel in “terrible danger.”

Netanyahu and Gallant appeared at the air force event, and another Monday event, in their first joint appearance since Netanyahu said he had decided to fire Gallant last week. Despite the announcement, Netanyahu never submitted a formal letter of dismissal, and his office announced Monday that the move was officially delayed.

Netanyahu said he was firing Gallant after Gallant publicly warned that the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary were threatening Israel’s security, and called for a halt to allow for compromise talks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at a pre-Passover event at an air force base on April 3, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

According to a Sunday report, the IAF’s Bar intends to begin booting reservist pilots who refuse to show up in protest of the government’s judicial plans.

The change in tack indicates a tougher approach to threats from the most prominent of a wave of reservist soldiers saying they will no longer present themselves for service or training as long as Netanyahu’s hardline coalition moves ahead with the contentious legislation.

According to the Channel 12 report, Bar recently spoke with senior air force commanders to inform them of this new approach and said any new threats from reservist pilots to not report for duty would be met with sanctions and possible removal from operational activity. Haaretz reported that Bar said it would not be possible to participate in operational activities if pilots miss training, citing a source with knowledge of the conversation.

Reservist pilots train frequently and missing multiple sessions could impact competency.

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

An IDF spokesperson told Haaretz in response that the military “will not address what is said in closed forums,” but that over the past few weeks, “all the commanders in the IDF held talks with their subordinates, in active duty and the reserves, with the aim of strengthening the cohesion of the IDF and maintaining its competence.”

Last month, 37 out of 40 reservists in the IAF’s 69th Squadron said they would boycott one training session, sparking widespread consternation. They joined a growing list of units in the IDF, including some of the most elite, whose members have threatened to not show up amid the widescale opposition to the government’s plans.

Also last month, 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 bid. The warning appeared to be the most far-reaching voiced by members of the security forces, as opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul effort expanded deeper into the military’s ranks.

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.

Demonstrators protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv on March 28, 2023. (Oded Balilty/AP Photo)

The judicial legislation push was temporarily paused last week, after mass protests broke out following Netanyahu’s announced dismissal of Gallant. But the opposition is highly distrustful of the overtures, as some coalition members have vowed to soon pick up right where they left off after the Knesset’s Passover recess and push ahead, starting with a bill that will put judicial appointments under political control.

Compromise talks are taking place under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog. Anti-overhaul protesters, who went out in droves for the 13th consecutive week to rally against the government, have been demanding that instead of pausing the legislation drive, the coalition shelve the bills completely.

The warnings about Israel’s military readiness come as tensions escalate on the northern border amid a series of airstrikes attributed to Israel in Syria, a terror attack in northern Israel last month thought to have been perpetrated by an intruder from Lebanon, and an incursion by a drone this week that officials believe was Iranian.

There has also been regular violence in the West Bank in the past year, as the IDF raids Palestinian cities in response to a string of deadly Palestinian terror attacks.

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