JERUSALEM — Dozens of Israeli air force reservists said on Sunday they would not turn up for a training day in protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, a jolt for a country whose melting-pot military is meant to be apolitical.
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, 37 pilots and navigators from an F-15 squadron said they would skip drills scheduled for Wednesday and instead “devote our time to dialog 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 over-reach. Critics worry that Netanyahu – who is on trial on graft 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 IDF’s (Israel Defence Forces) 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 the “importance of maintaining the IDF’s impartiality.”
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 overhaul.
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. (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Christina Fincher and Alexander Smith)