‘We won’t surrender’: Coalition far-right heads reject IAF protest as akin to coup bid

Smotrich says Israel can’t manage without pilots but also can’t be ruled by ‘military junta’; Ben Gvir: We won’t let government become subordinate to army, overhaul laws will pass

Illustrative photo of a graduation ceremony for pilots who have completed the IAF Flight Course, at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, December 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a graduation ceremony for pilots who have completed the IAF Flight Course, at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, December 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Senior coalition lawmakers lashed out on Friday after over 1,000 members of the Israeli Air Force announced that they would be halting their volunteer reserve duty in protest of the government’s effort to radically overhaul the judiciary, saying their protest was tantamount to an attempted military coup.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich penned an open letter to the IAF protesters, who include over 400 pilots, in which he urged them to retract their “mistake” that risks seriously harming the country, as other far-right lawmakers employed much more combative language against the pilots.

They asserted that the government would not allow itself to be held hostage by them and would be moving forward with the passage of the first piece of overhaul legislation next week before continuing with the remainder of the controversial package to significantly curb the judiciary’s power in the following months.

The protest letter sent earlier Friday by 1,142 active duty reservists — unprecedented in scale, and in terms of the centrality to the IDF of the signatories — was the latest to send shockwaves through the IDF, which was already struggling to stem a growing flood of reserve troops dropping out of volunteer duty to protest the overhaul, leading defense officials to warn that the growing phenomenon could affect national military preparedness.

In their (Hebrew) letter addressed to Knesset members, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and IAF chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, the reservists called on the government to “reach broad agreements” with regard to the judicial overhaul, and “strengthen the trust in the judicial system by all parts of society, and preserve its independence… Legislation that allows the government to act in an extremely unreasonable manner will harm the security of the State of Israel, will cause a loss of trust and a violation of my consent to continue risking my life, and will us lead, with deep sorrow and no choice, to us suspending [our] volunteer reserve duty.”

In his response letter, Smotrich declared, “A country that submits to the threats of generals will in fact be a country ruled by a military junta.”

This was the second time the far-right minister was addressing IAF pilots in this manner. He penned another letter in March in which he apologized for calling to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara — a remark which led many pilots to intensify their protests against the government’s judicial overhaul, describing Smotrich’s words as a potential operational command that they would be forced to fulfill if there was no independent court capable of interfering.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a Knesset faction meeting of his far-right Religious Zionism party, July 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In Smotrich’s Friday letter, he began by emphasizing that he “loves” the IAF, including those who had decided to join the unit’s latest protest.

“I am convinced that, like me, the absolute majority of the people in Israel, love, cherish and appreciate the decades that you invested most of your time and talent in the security of Israel. We owe you and really cannot, and do not want to, manage without you,” Smotrich wrote.

“But we need you the same as we owe the army mechanics, the infantry soldiers, and the armored corps — just as we need the tech workers and the teachers and the farmers and the settlers, the people of the city and the countryside, religious, secular and ultra-Orthodox,” the finance minister continued.

He made clear that he opposed the recent attacks made against the protesting pilots by supporters of the judicial overhaul. “But having said that, I think you are making a bitter mistake, and you must recalculate your route.”

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was much more blunt, saying in a statement: “The purpose of the refuseniks’ letter is to hold the Israeli government hostage and impose on it the political position of a minority that believes that the country belongs to them, as they trample on the people’s army and violate the will of the people who gave the government a mandate to reform the legal system.”

“We will not give in to this dangerous attempt to create chaos, so that the army, which in a democratic country is subordinate to the government, will be the one that bends the government,” he said.

“With God’s help, we will pass the requested amendment of the judicial system beginning with the reasonableness bill, but this is only the beginning!”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Almog Cohen from Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party was similarly blunt in his response, calling the pilots “despicable refuseniks” who were “strengthening the enemy.”

“There will be no surrender,” Cohen asserted. “We will open the pilots’ course and Unit 8200 to the boys of the periphery… as should have happened a long time ago. We don’t give in to protectionism.”

Members of the government have long accused the IAF’s top brass and the elite 8200 intelligence unit of being unfairly dominated by the Ashkenazi upper class, while being closed off to individuals of Mizrahi background.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party asserted that “those who choose to refuse to serve and are willing to neglect the security of the State of Israel do not deserve to wear the IDF uniform.”

“Generations of Jews dreamed of establishing an independent state for the Jewish people, with a defense force that would prevent another Holocaust. As an officer in the paratroopers who was wounded in battle, who lost comrades in my arms and as someone who lost family members in the Holocaust, I say that those who refuse to serve abandon the security of the state of the Jewish people against our enemies!”

“No political debate can justify such an immoral act. It is permissible to protest, it is permissible to disagree politically, but Israel’s security must not be neglected.”

Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen attends a Knesset Finance Committee meeting in Jerusalem, January 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition Whip Ofir Katz said, “True democracy is not surrendering to a number of officers who do not accept a political move. If we fold now, democratic elections will have had no meaning, and we will face this threat again and again. In a democracy, the voice of the doctor and the pilot is equal to the voice of the supermarket and factory worker. On Monday the [reasonableness] law will be passed.”

Most Israelis who complete their mandatory military national 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.

Many reservists 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.

Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari responded to the reservists’ letter, saying the IDF was looking into the signatories and would “examine the meanings accordingly.”

“The security of the citizens of the State of Israel rests on the standing and reserve servicemembers, these are the best of our people and we are full of appreciation for their contribution,” Hagari said in a statement.

On Thursday, Maj. Gen. Bar said the IAF was continuing to operate as usual despite calls by reservists to not show up for volunteer duty in protest of the overhaul, but added that the current discourse was causing great damage that will take “years to fix.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives an address from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 20, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In a speech to the nation on Thursday night, Netanyahu said that the actual threat to Israel’s democracy was not his government’s planned legislation — which will remove checks and balances on the Knesset and bring most judicial appointments under political control — but refusals to show up for reserve military duty, as many have threatened if the “reasonableness” bill passes.

“In a democracy, the military is subordinate to the army, it doesn’t subordinate the government. When military elements attempt to dictate government policy via threats, that is illegitimate in any democracy. And if they succeed… that is the end of democracy,” he said.

“No responsible government, no responsible state, can agree to that, and every citizen must oppose it with full force,” Netanyahu added. “In a proper democracy, it is not the hand holding the weapon that determines what happens, but the hand that puts the voting slip into the ballot box.”

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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