Pilots’ alarm shows Israel now in danger of entering a death spiral

Only Netanyahu can avert catastrophe – by halting his bid to neuter the courts and instead negotiating genuine reform. It would cost him his coalition, but it would save the state

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

FILE: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Israeli Air Force pilot training graduates, at Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, December 27, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)
FILE: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Israeli Air Force pilot training graduates, at Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, December 27, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

On Friday, dozens of Israeli pilots — reservists who remain engaged in active service — met with the head of the Israel Air Force to raise burning concerns over the direction the governing coalition is taking Israel, and the consequences for their vital, ongoing role in the country’s defense.

Noting that they represent hundreds more pilots across the IAF, they told him they felt the need to stress something that should not need stressing — that they will refuse to carry out illegal orders. They were highlighting this obvious moral obligation, they made clear, because Bezalel Smotrich, the Jewish-supremacist finance minister, who also holds authority as a minister in the Defense Ministry, had on Wednesday called for the State of Israel to “wipe out” the West Bank Palestinian town of Huwara, with a population of some 7,000, in response to the killings of two Israeli brothers in a terrorist attack there last Sunday. (Smotrich has subsequently walked back that demand.)

They also raised profound worries about the direct implications of the coalition’s onslaught against the High Court of Justice — the current legislative blitz to politicize the composition of the court and to radically constrain its independence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s determination to fast-track this package of legislation, which would leave Israel with no effective brake on any and all abuse by the political majority, is threatening to tear the country apart. For the pilots, and indeed for all members of the Israeli military, the consequences could be rapid and highly personal: If Israel has no credible, independent judiciary to investigate alleged crimes by its military, international tribunals will attempt to do the job, including by arresting potential suspects at all levels of the military and its political command when they travel overseas.

Attempting to assuage at least some of their concerns, IAF chief Tomer Bar later penned a letter to all IAF reservists in which he assured them that the air force would continue to operate “according to the moral standards and according to the values and spirit of the IDF — without any change.” And he noted that he expected them to continue to report for duty as usual. (Many “reserve” pilots carry out 60-70 days of annual service.)

By Sunday, it was already clear that Bar’s response had not alleviated concerns in the IAF. A staggering 37 members of a key, 40-strong air force fighter squadron declared that, while they will continue with their operational service, they will be boycotting a training session on Wednesday to sound their alarm against the judicial revolution. The 69 Squadron blew up Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007, its members carry out many of the IAF’s most complex and distant missions, and they would likely play a major role in any strike on Iran.

The Israel Defense Forces has been dragged ever-deeper into Israeli politics since the coalition was assembled, and Smotrich was given West Bank responsibilities previously held by the defense minister, while his fellow extremist Itamar Ben Gvir was assigned authority over Border Police units as part of his role as national security minister. Aviv Kohavi, who ended his term as chief-of-staff in mid-January, said publicly that the IDF could only and would only be answerable to the defense minister, and that he would not deploy Border Police forces under Ben Gvir’s ministerial command. Kohavi’s successor Herzi Halevi is reported to have privately conveyed to Netanyahu similar concerns about the potential breakdown of the IDF’s chain of command.

The pilots’ meeting with their air force chief, and the squadron’s planned training boycott, mark a yet more drastic expression of worry, and worse, in the ranks of the military about where the political leadership is taking Israel. With members of numerous other units having penned various letters of concern, and with members of the Mossad and Shin Bet also weighing in, Israel is now reaching the hitherto unthinkable situation where increasing numbers of those who risk their lives in our defense, including some of the most essential protectors of the state, are indicating they may no longer feel morally and practically willing to obey the orders of the IDF’s political masters.

And still the legislative juggernaut speeds forward. And still Netanyahu and his proxies — Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Judicial Committee chair Simcha Rothman — brush aside opponents of their program, condemn protesters as anarchists, draw foul comparisons between pro-democracy demonstrators and violent settler extremists (as Netanyahu did in an address to the nation last Wednesday, before walking it back), and disingenuously call for dialogue while refusing to heed President Isaac Herzog’s plea to pause the legislation to enable patient, constructive debate.

Unconfirmed reports after Netanyahu’s speech last Wednesday claimed he had been intending to announce at least a temporary halt to the legislative offensive, but was forced to change his mind when Levin, who has refused to slow the process by so much as a minute, threatened to resign.

Given that all his ultra-Orthodox and far-right partners have their own narrow reasons for neutering the High Court, a readiness by Netanyahu to negotiate genuine judicial reform, as opposed to destroying the independent judiciary, would almost certainly spell the end of his coalition.

But the unprecedented alarm being signaled by many of Israel’s pilots underscores that the end of this or that coalition cannot be a central consideration. Herzog has been warning for weeks that Israel is in danger of walking into the abyss, that the rift over the judicial overhaul “could consume us all.” The pilots’ protest suggests our country risks entering what might in air force parlance be termed a death spiral.

Only Netanyahu can avert the catastrophe he has set in motion, just possibly pressured by a mini-revolt in Likud. It would indeed cost him his coalition. But it would save the country.

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