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200 more pilots to skip weekly training flight over PM’s refusal to halt overhaul

  • March 24, 2023

Roughly 200 Israeli Air Force reserve pilots reportedly notified their units that they would not be reporting for their weekly flying session next week following the announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night that the government will move forward with its plan to overhaul the judiciary, despite widespread public protest.

The failure to report for weekly training sessions has serious implications because pilots who miss them are not certified to fly operational missions.

The protesters included pilots from different branches of the IAF including those who fly combat missions, helicopters and transport planes, Channel 12 reported, without citing a source.

Those who joined the protest Friday included some of the most senior pilots in the IAF, such as those who carry out missions that Israel does not publicly acknowledge, the report said.

Hundreds of IAF officers and military reservists have joined the protests in recent weeks against the hardline coalition’s effort to radically restrict the High Court of Justice’s power, declaring that they won’t report for duty if the overhaul passes. A significant proportion of the protesting reservists have already stopped reporting for duty, further intensifying the pressure against the government.

The trend has sparked deep fears among the security establishment, which has warned Netanyahu that the IDF’s operational capacity is at risk.

There was some speculation Thursday that the prime minister would agree to halt the overhaul legislation, at least temporarily, in order to allow for substantive negotiations to reach a compromise with the opposition.

Instead, Netanyahu gave a prime-time address in which he said his government will continue to charge ahead with the plan “responsibly,” while aiming to pass a core tenet of the overhaul next week.

He said the coalition will next week advance one of the most important elements of the plan — a bill to put key Supreme Court appointments directly in coalition control. Netanyahu insisted that “we don’t want a controlled court, we want a balanced court.”

The speech led to a letter on Friday from Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara informing the premier that he had violated a conflict of interest agreement, which allowed him to govern during his ongoing corruption trial, and called his statements Thursday night and any further involvement in the coalition’s judicial overhaul “illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest.”

Increasingly, reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which they charge the country will become under the government’s plan.

Military brass has insisted that the armed services must remain outside any political brawl, but numerous reports have indicated the phenomenon is only growing.

Netanyahu’s speech also led to an intensification of the reservists’ protests against the government.

The IAF officers decided to hold off on attending training sessions for two weeks before reassessing, the network said.

Protest organizers told the Ynet news site Friday that Netanyahu’s speech the night before represented a breaking point for many pilots who had until then held out on joining the protests.

Also on Friday, 100 IDF doctors penned a letter to the top IDF brass informing them that they would no longer be reporting for reserve duty as a result of the continued advancement of the judicial overhaul.

The military physicians said they had reached out several weeks earlier urging the military leadership to act against the implementation of the “regime coup,” warning then that they would not be able to continue serving if it was implemented.

“To our disappointment, the legislative race not only hasn’t been stopped but it has intensified, despite the growing societal rupture and despite the warnings from experts in various fields.”

Accordingly, the military doctors said they would be ceasing their reserve duty service immediately and would instead be enlisting in the fight for democracy.

On Wednesday, Haaretz reported that the IDF had already identified a significant drop in the number of ground force troops reporting for reserve duty.

In the elite 551st Paratroopers Brigade, only 57 percent of reservists reported for duty this week — down significantly from the usual turnout of 90%, according to the Wednesday report. The unit had been expecting a 78% turnout rate among its 700 reservists amid opposition to the government’s effort to radically restrict the Supreme Court’s power, but army officials were dismayed to learn that the protest’s scope had gone much further than they anticipated.

The 551st Brigade is one of two reserve battalions in the IDF’s 98th Division.

“It’s far from anything we imagined we’d end up with, and it’s not easy to accept,” a military source told the paper.

Separately on Wednesday, Channel 12 reported that non-commissioned officers in the Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division notified the IDF that they plan to cancel their contracts if the judicial overhaul is passed. The officers have rejected the new proposal now being advanced for remaking the Judicial Appointments Committee, dismissing the coalition’s claim that it represents a “softening” of its position.

The officers will pay a fine if they cancel their contracts, but a representative told Channel 12 that it was a price they were willing to pay.

Earlier in the day, Channel 12 reported that 700 reservists in the Nahal Brigade sent a letter to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi urging them to do everything in their power to stop the judicial overhaul. “This is a violation of the social contract. This is not the way of the State of Israel,” they wrote.

In parallel, 100 recently discharged armored corp officers wrote their own letter to security chiefs warning that “some of us will stop reporting for reserve duty if the coup d’état passes.”

In another letter reported by Haaretz, 100 IAF senior reservists announced that they would cease reporting for non-emergency service due to the overhaul.

They joined the 180 pilots, 50 controllers and 40 drone operators who had already taken such a step.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges. There have been weekly mass protests for over two months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders and more.

In addition, soldiers have expressed concern that a lack of international trust in the independence of Israel’s judiciary could expose them to prosecution in international tribunals over actions they were ordered to carry out during service.

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