After threats of refusal to perform obligatory reserve duty, 37 of the pilots in the Israel Air Force’s (IAF) 69th Reserve Squadron have confirmed that they will not show up for duty this Wednesday and take part in a planned air training exercise. The pilots fly the F15I fighter aircraft called the “Ra’am” in Hebrew, which means thunder. In Israel military service is considered a sacred duty on the part of citizens. To “strike” like this means certain court martial and being jailed.
And fighter pilots are the “cream of the crop,” the most respected members of the Israeli military. It is harder to be accepted to the pilots’ program and then complete all of the training to actually fly fighter jets than it is to serve in any other combat role in the IDF. This is why even the threat of such a strike will have major repercussions throughout Israel.
In a letter obtained by Israel’s Channel 12 television news, the reservists wrote, “On Wednesday, March 8, we will devote our time to discourse and thinking for the sake of democracy and the unity of the people, and therefore we will not report to reserve duty on this day, with the exception of operational activity. During the rest of the week, we will report [for duty] as planned,”
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The pilots are joining the massive protests that have rocked Israel over the past two months, ever since Justice Minister Yariv Levin revealed the government’s plans to alter the nature of Israel’s judicial system. The government’s judicial reform plan would greatly curtail the power of Israel’s Supreme Court to nullify legislation passed by the Knesset and also limit the authority of Israel’s attorney general. The opposition charges this would harm Israel’s democracy, eroding foreign confidence in the country and hurting its economy. And this is why the country is now on the brink of what some are describing as the biggest societal clash in Israel’s history.
Former Minister of Defense and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz currently leads the opposition “Blue and White Party” in the Knesset. And he has been one of the most vocal critics of the judicial reform plan. But even he feels that the refusal to perform military service in protest goes too far.
“I call on military men and regulars,” said Gantz, “continue to serve, show up under any conditions. To defend this country with protests and to defend it with sorties. Don’t give in to reluctance, with all the pain.”
Another former IDF general and a member of Gantz’s party, Knesset member Gadi Eizenkot, issued a similar statement.
“The IDF is the only body whose mission is to ensure the existence of the State of Israel,” he said. “Without the IDF there is no existence for the State of Israel. We must keep it out of the important and just struggle.”
If the pilots go through with their plan it could have devastating societal consequences in Israel and here is why. Part of the criticism of the judicial reforms is that it would strip the Israeli courts’ ability to stop ultra-orthodox political parties from passing laws that would increase their authority in the country over public behavior, including pushing through dress codes in public places and so forth. And the people from this community do not serve in the military, shunning service to spend years studying in yeshivot – Tora academies. These parties could be able to pass new laws granting their people full exemptions from military service without fear that the courts would strike down such a law.
When IDF personnel – especially IAF pilots – say they will refuse service – it could serve as a shock to many of the more moderate members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. More people would refuse to serve as long as the ultra-orthodox do not, and have such authority over the lives of the people who do. And motivation to serve in any special forces unit that is served by volunteers alone – like the air force – will diminish and the defense of the nation will suffer.
Supporters of Netanyahu’s government and the judicial reforms will counter, of course, that this is unacceptable and tantamount to treason. But the opposition has also accused the government of betraying Israel’s democratic principles by pushing through the reforms.