Pilots warn IDF chief that most reservists will cease flying if overhaul passes

Halevi vows to ensure legality of army missions after meeting with senior IAF members; ‘We won’t stand idly by’ if reform passed, hundreds of reconnaissance fighters tell Gallant

Illustrative: 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)
Illustrative: 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)

A group of Israeli Air Force officers have 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 its legislative proposals to radically weaken the judiciary.

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

Recognizing that the protests could impact the army’s operational capacity, Halevi has held a series of meetings with senior IDF officers, including those who have been threatening not to report for reserve duty if the controversial legislation is rushed through without compromise. One of those meetings took place on Tuesday evening, with 20 IAF officers in attendance and representing a wide variety of units in the air force. A summary of the meeting was leaked to a handful of Hebrew media outlets on Wednesday.

The pilots spoke for themselves but also sought to explain to Halevi that their concerns about the overhaul and their unwillingness to serve if it is passed were shared very broadly in their units, according to the summary

Halevi began the conversation by stressing how important reserve fighters are to the IDF’s efforts and warning about the harm posed by continued threats from reservists not to report for duty to the army’s ability to combat the external threats it faces, the meeting’s summary said.

The IDF chief pledged to speak immediately with government representatives as well as in the media about the importance of speaking respectfully about the military reserve members who have chosen to protest the judicial overhaul, amid a series of disparaging comments made recently against them. Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi of Likud, for example, said Monday that the protesting pilots could “go to hell.”

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi holds a meeting with reserve soldiers on March 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The reservists in the meeting stressed that they are committed to the well-being of the IAF and the country but feel that the government’s effort risks eroding the state from within, the summary said.

Halevi issued a statement on Wednesday evening describing refusing to report for reserve duty as a “red line” that he would not accept. However, the military chief added that he would “ensure that the tasks the IDF carries out correspond to its values ​​and are carried out legally.”

The latter comment appeared to reference concerns voiced by pilots who met with IAF chief Tomer Bar last week and told him they would refuse to carry out illegal orders, citing as an example a statement by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich calling for the government to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwara. Smotrich apologized for the remark again on Wednesday and said he did not realize it would be interpreted as a command by officers who fear that there will no longer be any checks on the government’s power if the overhaul is passed.

Separately on Wednesday, over 400 reserve members of the IDF’s elite Maglan reconnaissance unit signed an open letter to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declaring that they would “not be able to stand idly by” if the government passes its judicial overhaul plans, in the latest of a series of letters by reserve soldiers threatening to refuse their duties over the legislation.

The government’s legislation represents a “gross deviation from the values on which we were raised, on which the state was founded and which we volunteer to protect,” the commandos wrote, adding that they have fought for a state that protects full social and political rights for all its citizens.

“The passage of this legal reform negates some of these values and damages the democratic foundations of the state,” they charged, warning “if the judicial reforms pass, we, the undersigned will not be able to stand idly by.”

Reservists block Route 1 to protest the government’s planned judicial overhaul, March 1, 2023 (Courtesy/Brothers in Arms)

“We call on you to act immediately to stop the steps to weaken the judiciary, and protect the State of Israel,” the reservists concluded.

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 will harm national security. The threats ratcheted up Sunday as 37 out of 40 fighter jet pilots from a key squadron announced they would refuse to take part in a training exercise due to the overhaul and a rise in West Bank settler violence. The pilots said Tuesday they would show up to base as ordered, but only for discussions, and not training.

In another letter on Wednesday, addressed to IDF Halevi, 43 reservists in an unnamed elite unit said that they would “not continue to volunteer for reservist duty,” if the legislation passes without dialogue or compromise.

“The State of Israel will not be a democracy, and won’t be the State of Israel we fought for” if the overhaul is passed, the reservists wrote, adding: “We will not serve in a dictatorship.”

They lamented the “wave of wild incitement, delegitimization and contempt of half the nation” that opposes the judicial overhaul, claiming that members of the coalition who have sought to frame the protesters as “privileged anarchists” were contributing to that wave.

Almost 300 members of the security unit involved in protecting Israel’s emissaries overseas also wrote a letter urging the coalition to “immediately halt the current governmental coup.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with senior reservist officers in Tel Aviv on March 7, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“Our members have fought terrorists in the airports of Paris, Rome, Vienna, Nicosia, and more. Our personnel prevented a mid-air explosion of an El Al plane when explosives were discovered in London and Zurich. Our men rescued Israel’s representatives in Cairo and many other places,” they said.

Reservists from the naval, intelligence, air force, and ground force branches of the IDF met with Gallant and Halevi Tuesday to discuss the wave of protests.

A reservist involved in one of the discussions told Channel 13 news that he left the meeting feeling “shocked,” complaining that Gallant “does not understand what is going on at all and speaks in slogans.”

Following the discussion, the defense minister vowed to “defend all reservists, including those who think differently than me,” but urged them to avoid refusal of their duties.

On Friday, reservists meeting with IAF chief Tomer Bar reportedly assured him that they would continue to do active service but expressed fear that the new hardline government’s conduct and judicial proposals could expose them to prosecution by global bodies, such as the International Criminal Court.

Israel has long argued against such probes, pointing to the strength and independence of its own judiciary, which is responsible for investigating incidents of wrongdoing by Israeli forces. But critics of the government’s legal overhaul warn that efforts to restrict the High Court of Justice’s power will rob the country of legitimacy in the international arena.

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