Several reserve pilots tell Air Force chief they won’t train over judicial overhaul

‘I won’t ‘volunteer for a dictatorship,’ says one 44-year veteran; announcement comes after Netanyahu reportedly says that Israel can ‘get by without a few squadrons’

F-35i fighter jets are seen at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, in an undated handout photo. (Israel Defense Forces)
F-35i fighter jets are seen at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, in an undated handout photo. (Israel Defense Forces)

Several reserve pilots told Air Force Commander Tomer Bar on Friday that they will stop reporting for training from next week in protest of the judicial overhaul, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

According to the report, a senior military figure said that at this stage the refusal to report does not affect the air force’s readiness. He said the move was so far only by individual pilots and not an organized effort.

The report did not say how many pilots were involved in the boycott but noted that some of the pilots who are stopping to volunteer are officers ranked lieutenant colonel and higher. Several of the pilots serve as flight training instructors.

Although the identities of pilots are generally not revealed, one reserve pilot, Col. Nof Erez, said he wanted to go public with his refusal to serve, telling Kan that he cannot serve and “volunteer for a dictatorship.”

“If all those who say they’ll leave [their IDF service] would do it, then Hezbollah would have it a lot easier,” said Erez, who served for 20 years in the military and a further 24 years as a reservist.

But “the damage to national security is not the fault of reservists who have stopped serving. Whoever is worried should do something to prevent the mass abandonment that is set to occur,” he said.

According to Hebrew media reports, reservist pilots met Monday with Air Force chief Tomer Bar, warning him of potential mass refusals to volunteer for service if the government advances its controversial push to overhaul the judiciary.

The group of pilots, who represented hundreds of others, told Bar that “we swore to serve the kingdom, not the king,” according to reports by news outlets that weren’t confirmed by the Israel Defense Forces.

Pilots warned that some were considering ceasing their reserve duty over the coalition’s renewed unilateral efforts to pass the overhaul, warning that the passage of the so-called “reasonableness” bill, or any other element of the plan, could lead to a significant number of refusals that could harm the army’s operational capabilities, the Ynet news site reported.

However, according to a report by journalist Amit Segal in his weekly Yedioth Ahronoth column, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would nevertheless refuse to halt judicial overhaul legislation, reportedly telling confidants that Israel can survive “without a few squadrons.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin as the Knesset deliberates a bill to cancel the judiciary’s review powers over the ‘reasonableness’ of government decisions, in Jerusalem on July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The country can get by without a few [Air Force] squadrons, but not without a government,” Netanyahu reportedly said.

“Ending the legislation has one meaning, and that is that there is no point in having an executive authority, as it can’t do anything,” Netanyahu was quoted saying.

Segal added that Netanyahu is “mentally prepared” for another attempt at mass refusal by reservists.

The coalition is expected to push through its “reasonableness” law, which will bar the courts from invalidating or even discussing government and ministers’ decisions based on their “reasonableness,” in the next two weeks.

The report did not say when Netanyahu made the comments, but they come days after he was recorded lashing out at the reservists, who then accused him of endangering national security.

Netanyahu was heard raging at the prospect of soldiers refusing to serve — many of them who do so in a voluntary capacity — due to his government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary.

His comments, revealed by Channel 13 News on Wednesday, were made during a meeting with legal advisors and State Prosecutor Amit Aisman. The latter explained to the prime minister that all calls for refusal are investigated on a case-by-case basis.

“I can’t imagine anything more serious, organizing a mass effort to break the law… It’s inconceivable… This harms the body of the state, national security,” Netanyahu was heard shouting.

Anti-judicial overhaul demonstrators block Route 1 and clash with police during a protest near Ein Hemed, July 11, 2023. (Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

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 positions.

The military has said that it would discipline or potentially dismiss soldiers who refuse to show up for duty when ordered to but stressed that no action would be taken against reservists who only threaten not to show up. It is unclear what measures would be taken against reservists who do not show up for voluntary duty.

Reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have been warning in recent months 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.

Alumni of special intelligence units said in a statement Thursday that Netanyahu “understands that he, and only he, is dismantling the country and the defense establishment. Don’t talk to us about ‘state security’ when you are rushing toward a Russian or Iranian-style dictatorship.”

A separate group of alumni of the Intelligence Branch said that Netanyahu’s recordings “show he understands the damage to security as a result of government actions. Responsibility for state security is in his hands.”

The large Brothers in Arms protest group of reservists said Netanyahu “is personally destroying national security and relations with the US… He should immediately stop legislation that is tearing the nation apart and face the fact that an army of the people can exist only in a democracy.”

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