Report: IAF commander sets October 17 deadline for protesting pilots to return

Tomer Bar instructs force to map out preparedness levels ahead of major military exercise later this month; IDF confirms he’s called for ‘conversations’ with reserve personnel

Israeli Air Force chief Tomer Bar speaks at an event in honor of the 75th anniversary of the IAF's first-ever strike mission 75 years ago, at the Ad Halom Park near Ashdod, May 29, 2023. (Flash90)
Israeli Air Force chief Tomer Bar speaks at an event in honor of the 75th anniversary of the IAF's first-ever strike mission 75 years ago, at the Ad Halom Park near Ashdod, May 29, 2023. (Flash90)

Israeli Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar has reportedly given a deadline of two weeks to reserve pilots who stopped reporting for duty in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul, telling them to return to volunteer reserve service or risk being deemed unfit to continue flying and potentially dismissed from the military.

Channel 13 reported Monday night that Bar has set October 17 as the deadline in order to prepare for a large joint military exercise with other air forces, including the US, at the end of the month.

Squadron commanders will be required to present the preparedness levels of their volunteer pilots on October 17, and a decision will be made about those considered unfit, according to the report, which noted that many of the protesting pilots suspended their volunteer service for training or operational duty in July, almost three months ago.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that Bar has given instructions to hold “conversations” with reserve personnel “with the aim of mapping a picture of the preparedness of the [air] force, and to return the reserve servicemen to service.”

Most Israelis who complete their mandatory military service are required to attend annual reserve duty, but those who’ve served in special units — including pilots — are expected to volunteer to continue carrying out the same duties while in the reserves, a commitment they usually take upon themselves.

Due to the nature of their positions, special forces troops and pilots in reserves show up more frequently for training and missions.

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)

Many reservists have warned since earlier this year that they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become if the government’s overhaul plans are realized.

Around mid-July, over 1,100 Israeli Air Force reservists, including more than 400 pilots, announced that they would suspend their volunteer reserve duty in protest of the government’s agenda to overhaul the judicial system.

The announcement — unprecedented in scale and in terms of the centrality to the IDF of those signed onto the letter — sent shockwaves through the military, which struggled to stem a growing flood of reserve troops dropping out of volunteer duty to protest the overhaul earlier in the year.

Earlier in July, some 10,000 reservists who frequently show up for duty on a voluntary basis said they would no longer do so, after the coalition advanced the first major piece of legislation to upend the judiciary.

Defense officials have repeatedly warned that the phenomenon could affect national preparedness. Such warnings have angered the government and have earned the military sustained public attacks by hardline coalition members.

In August, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to have shouted at Israel Defense Forces Chief Herzi Halevi and Bar, hours after the army confirmed that Bar had warned protesting reserve pilots of “worsening damage to the army’s readiness.”

From left: IAF chief Tomer Bar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog, Defense Minister Yoav Galant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi at a graduation ceremony for pilots at Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, June 29, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Later that same week, pilots in the IAF reserves warned in a meeting with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that they may not be willing to carry out attacks on behalf of Israel should it slide into authoritarianism, expressing sympathy for colleagues who had suspended volunteer duty in protest.

While some in the government have rejected the protest as politically tainted, some servicemembers have explained that changes to Israel’s judiciary could leave them liable to international tribunals, which can be activated in cases where the local judicial system is seen as insufficiently independent.

Gantz and other defense officials have sought to shield the military from increasingly heated coalition criticism.

Coalition lawmakers had, for weeks, castigated the pilots and other members of the reserves for halting their service, and commanders for failing to quell what Regional Cooperation Minister David Amsalem of Netanyahu’s Likud party called a “rebellion.”

“In any normal army, you treat rebels like rebels should be treated,” Amsalem said in August, drawing swift rebuke from President Isaac Herzog, among others.

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