Israel air force reservists to skip training in Netanyahu protest

The reservists are angry at PM Netanyahu’s attempts to change the Israeli judiciary, in what they see as an anti-democratic move.

Israel's F-35 Lightning II fighter jet takes part in an aerial display
The Israeli air force relies on reservists in wartime and requires them to undergo regular training [File: Menahem Kahana/AFP]

Dozens of Israeli air force reservists have said they will not turn up for a training day in protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial changes.

As Israel’s strategic arm, the air force has traditionally relied on reservists in wartime and requires crews who have been discharged to train regularly in order to maintain readiness.

But in a letter circulated in local media on Sunday, 37 pilots and navigators from an F-15 squadron said they would skip drills scheduled for Wednesday and instead “devote our time to dialogue and reflection for the sake of democracy and national unity”.

The religious-nationalist government seeks changes that include curbs on the Supreme Court, which it accuses of overreach. Critics feel that Netanyahu – who is on trial on corruption charges he denies – wants excessive power over the judiciary.

Weekly and increasingly raucous demonstrations have swept the country, with some protest leaders – among them former military chiefs – saying that a non-democratic turn in government would warrant mass disobedience within the ranks.

The 37 air force reservists said they would suspend their one-day protest if required to carry out actual operations.

A military spokesperson declined to comment on their letter but said top commander Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevy “is aware of the public discourse and division but will not allow any harm to the [Israeli army’s] ability to carry out its most important mission – defend(ing) Israel’s security”.

Officers had been instructed to speak with subordinates on the issue, said the statement, which also reiterated that the army must remain impartial.

Israel does not publish military personnel figures, making it hard to judge to impact of the air force reservists’ protest, or of similar pledges by some reservists from other branches.

“These irresponsible Israeli media are playing up any reservist who makes some kind of statement,” finance minister Bezalel Smotrich told Channel 12 TV.

“There are tens and hundreds of thousands who will continue to enlist for the military and serve in the reserves and understand that we are brothers and bear responsibility for the great miracle that is the Zionist enterprise.”

Netanyahu, a former officer in Israel’s most prestigious commando unit, tweeted a photograph of himself at conscription age with the caption: “When called up for reserve duty, we always turn up. We are one nation.”

Meanwhile, Israel’s N12 News reported that El Al Israel Airlines was having trouble finding a crew to fly Netanyahu on a state visit to Italy this week, because of a boycott by pilots over the judicial changes.

Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

El Al said it would not support boycotts, “particularly against the prime minister of Israel”, and that the flight had been staffed and would depart as planned.

Source: Reuters