Over 100 Air Force reservists say they will refuse to serve if overhaul advances

Latest letter comes as coalition seeks to pass bill to block judges from exercising judicial review over ‘reasonableness’ of government decisions

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

Illustrative: Three pilots stand in front of an F-16 fighter jet as it takes off from the Israeli Air Force's 117th Squadron, which was closed on September 30, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Three pilots stand in front of an F-16 fighter jet as it takes off from the Israeli Air Force's 117th Squadron, which was closed on September 30, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

A group of over 100 Israeli Air Force reservists on Wednesday joined a growing chorus of members of the reserve military opposed to the coalition’s planned judicial overhaul, warning in an open letter that they would stop showing up for duty should the government move ahead with its plans.

“We are announcing today that if the law to abolish the cause of reasonableness, or any other law that is part of the legal reform, passes third Knesset readings, we will be forced to immediately stop our volunteering for reserve service,” the letter, signed by some 110 IAF reservists read.

The reservists said they were volunteer aircrew, air traffic control officers, and other officers serving at the IAF headquarters. Their letter was addressed to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, and IAF chief. Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar.

“Continuing the legislative process of the legal reform will seriously damage the democratic character of the State of Israel. Such legislation gives the government unlimited power, without the possibility of restraint by the judiciary, and it will bring us to a place of no return,” the reservists warned.

“The legality of the IDF’s actions rests on the State of Israel being a democratic state, and on the existence of an independent and strong judicial system,” they said. “We will not serve in the army of a country that is not democratic.”

Unlike most reservists who are called up for duty with a formal order from the IDF, pilots and other special forces show up for duty more frequently and in a voluntary manner, often not during an emergency, due to the nature of their position.

Opponents of the government’s judicial overhaul plans protest outside Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s home in Modiin, June 27, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Calls among IDF reservists to refuse to serve due to the government’s legislative efforts roiled the military earlier this year as the overhaul was first announced and advanced, growing in number even as they were condemned by senior politicians in both the opposition and the coalition.

Those calls have again increased in recent days as the government has resumed moving ahead in the Knesset with certain elements of the plan, after largely pausing the legislation several weeks ago.

This past week has seen a number of letters from hundreds of reservists in various elite units warning that they will refuse to volunteer for duty if the judicial overhaul goes ahead. Hundreds of military doctors also said that any unilateral move by the government to pass the overhaul “will lead to drastic and unilateral measures by the reservist doctors.”

The military said that it would discipline soldiers who refuse to show up for duty when ordered to, but stressed that no action would be taken against reservists who at this stage are only threatening not to show up.

Sources in the IDF told reporters on Tuesday that there was a difference between actual refusal and signing a petition threatening to refuse.

The IDF said there has been only a handful of “isolated cases” of soldiers actively refusing a reserve call-up order in recent months.

According to Army Radio, senior officers were mulling dismissing two infantry reservists who have been refusing to show up for several months.

People protest against the planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, on June 24, 2023 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Meanwhile, protest leaders on Tuesday vowed to step up their mass demonstrations against the government, including staging a blockade of the Ben Gurion Airport next week.

A large protest outside the home of Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Tuesday morning was led by the Brothers in Arms organization, a group of military reservists. During the rally, police arrested six of the protesters after they burned tires, scuffled with officers and attempted to block the road. Officers used pepper spray to clear the protesters and video showed police attempting to forcibly remove demonstrators who were sitting in the street.

The six protesters who were arrested were ordered released to house arrest later Tuesday by the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court. They were also barred from Levin’s hometown of Modiin for 15 days and banned from taking part in any protests for 10 days.

“In the coming weeks, we’ll intensify the struggle for the country’s character, and the nation of Israel must in all its might join the efforts to safeguard democracy,” the Brothers in Arms group said in a statement on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has prioritized the controversial proposals since being sworn in and the end of December.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of protesters have poured into the streets each week to demonstrate against the plans. In March, Netanyahu said he was pausing the legislation to hold compromise talks with its opponents, leading to several weeks of slightly more muted protests.

With little to no progress in the compromise talks under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, the government is now surging forward with portions of its plan to radically shake up the judiciary.

On Tuesday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice convened for additional deliberations on a bill to block justices from exercising judicial review over the “reasonableness” of government decisions. Coalition figures have vowed to pass such legislation before the Knesset summer recess in a month.

The sweeping overhaul also includes plans by the government to grant itself total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, all but eliminating the High Court’s ability to review and strike down legislation, and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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