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Israel’s Judicial Plan Crisis Grows as Air Reservists Threaten to Stop Serving

A police officer on horseback in front of a line of protesters.
Israeli mounted riot police confront demonstrators gathering along a highway in Tel Aviv on Thursday during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul bill.Credit...Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

More than a thousand pilots and other personnel in the Israeli Air Force reserve said on Friday that they would stop reporting for duty next week if the government pushes through a contentious plan to reduce judicial power without broader consensus.

In a joint letter released Friday, 1,142 air force reservists — including 235 fighter pilots, 98 transport plane pilots, 89 helicopter pilots and 173 drone operators — said they would not serve if the government proceeded with its plan to reduce the ways in which the Supreme Court can overrule the government.

“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 lead, with deep sorrow and lack of choice, to the suspension of my volunteer service in the reserves,” the letter said.

If such a large number of reservists follow through with their threat, defense officials have said it could significantly affect the capacity of the air force and its operational readiness.

Israeli fighter squadrons are strongly reliant on reserve pilots who have regular civilian jobs but who volunteer for several days each month to train or participate in combat and reconnaissance missions.

The total number of professional and reservist pilots has never been declared by the air force. But officials say that Israel’s regular strikes in Gaza and Syria, patrol missions over Israel and surveillance missions over Lebanon and the occupied West Bank are frequently led by reserve pilots and drone operators. Many of them have more experience than those in the full-time forces. An Israeli strike on Iran, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel must be ready to carry out if needed to protect itself, would also heavily rely on reservists.

Even a short break from training could affect their ability to fly, since it would take time for pilots to regain battle-ready sharpness, the military says.

The move reflects the deep social ruptures that have been widened by the government’s judicial plan.

In a vote next week, the government seeks to bar the Supreme Court from overruling the national government using the legal standard of “reasonableness,” a concept that judges use to block ministerial appointments and contest planning decisions, among other measures.

The government and its supporters say the legislation will improve democracy by giving elected lawmakers more authority, and will allow them to more easily implement the policies they were elected to enact. The court can still overrule the government using other legal measures.

“Israel will continue to be a democratic state,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a speech on Thursday. “It will continue to be a liberal state.”

He also criticized reservists who have attempted to shape government policy by refusing to serve. “In a democracy, the military is subordinate to the government — it does not compel the government,” he said. “When elements in the military try, with threats, to dictate policy to the government, this is unacceptable in any democracy.”

The opposition fears that the legislation undermines the quality of Israel’s democracy, removes a key check on government overreach and will allow the government — the most ultranationalist and ultraconservative in Israeli history — to build a less pluralist society.

Critics of the government also say it is legitimate for civilians whose permanent military duty has ended to decide to withdraw from volunteer service.

Ofer Lapidot, a reserve air force brigadier general who stepped down during a wave of resignations by reservists last week, said that the judicial overhaul had broken a social contract between the state and its reservists — altering the nature of the state that the volunteers were serving.

“When we are on the edge of an abyss — of losing the country we fought for — the contract has been broken,” General Lapidot said in an interview last week with Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster.

“What is worse?” he added. “The destruction of the country? Or the strengthening of an army that will be serving an illegitimate government — legal but not legitimate — that is bringing us all to a dictatorship and will soon give us illegal orders?”

In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces said many reservists who had already declared their intent to stop serving had not in fact formally notified the military of their intention.

“The I.D.F.’s operational abilities are not affected by individuals not reporting for service as of this moment,” the statement said. “But it is important to note that if people don’t show up for training for long enough, they will lose their capabilities and ‘get out of shape,’ which may affect us in the long run.”

The disagreement is part of a much wider and long-running social dispute about the nature and future of Israeli society.

The ruling coalition and its base generally have a more religious and conservative vision, and see the court as an obstacle to that goal. The opposition tends to have a more secular and diverse approach, and views the court as a standard-bearer for its cause. Jewish Israelis of Middle Eastern descent often also resent the court because it is largely staffed by Jews of European background.

The pilots’ protest reflects some of those social divisions. Air force pilots have typically been associated with wealthier and more secular parts of Israeli society.

But the air force is not monolithic, and many officers — both in the full-time force and among its reserve — have either pledged to carry on serving despite their personal political opinions, or said they support the judicial changes in the first place.

Shay Kallach, a major in the air force reserve, said the protesting pilots were acting in “a very malicious way.”

“They are saying that we have the obligation to decide for you — that there is no need for an election day, there is no need for a Knesset,” he said, using the Hebrew word for Parliament. “We decide for you.”

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

Posted on 21 Jul 2023 17:16 link