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Pilots delay training in judicial protest

JERUSALEM — Protests against the judicial reforms favored by the Netanyahu government extended to areas of Israel’s establishment where political protest was once unthinkable, including among combat pilots and, perhaps, staff for the national airline, El Al.

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against the Israeli goverment’s judicial overhaul bills in Tel Aviv, March 4, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The government is opening bids for other airlines to fly Netanyahu and his wife to Rome later this week after too few El Al employees signed up to work the trip.

The airline denied that the worker shortage reflected a protest against the prime minister, who is scheduled to meet with Italy’s new leader, Giorgia Meloni.

Others indicate that their refusal to show up to work represents a protest against Israel’s right-wing government.

Thirty-seven of 40 combat pilots in the military reserves said they would skip the first day of the required week of training to “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,” according to a translation of the letter published by the Times of Israel.

They would turn up as required for the rest of the week, they said.

Reserves pilots train multiple times a year, a regimen that is seen as critical to their effectiveness.

Individual soldiers have refused to serve in the past, at times earning jail sentences. A a mass action by one of the military’s most elite units has not occurred.

The squadron in this case was responsible for destroying a nascent nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007.

Among the appeals against the reforms, one came from 10 of the troops who joined Netanyahu’s older brother, Yonatan, in rescuing hostages held on a plane in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.

Yonatan was killed during the raid, which Israelis view as an iconic moment in their history, emblematic of Israel’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to rescue Jews in peril. Benjamin Netanyahu has since made his brother his lodestar, and frequently mentions him in public remarks.

The 10 veterans were especially offended by Netanyahu’s likening of the protesters against the judicial reform — whom they have joined — to the settlers who rioted in a West Bank village last month, burning houses and cars and injuring dozens. One Palestinian was killed amid the riots.

“We did the impossible with our brothers in arms,” said the letter, posted March 4 on social media. “And you and your cohort are doing everything you can to undermine motivation and to crack up Israeli society.”

The combat pilots and Entebbe veterans joined a large protest movement against legislation that would allow a simple majority of 61 Knesset members to overrule the Supreme Court, and reform the court in other ways, such as how its members are chosen. Under the current system, the court is, in effect, self-selecting, with its current justices and their allies in the bar choosing new justices. Elected officials neither nominate nor hold hearings with Supreme Court nominees.

On Sunday, March 5, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee advanced judicial legislation, which has already passed the full Knesset on the first of three required votes to become law.

The opposition sees the reforms as gutting the independence of the judiciary, which has been a bulwark against the erosion of the rights of women, non-Orthodox Jews, and minorities.

Netanyahu has said he is ready to negotiate on the judicial reforms, but the opposition wants him to first stop the legislative process.

Coalition lawmakers have said they want to pass the laws by Passover, at the beginning of April.

Organizers of the protests against the reform said 400,000 people turned out for the ninth weekly Saturday night protest, with more than 150,000 in Tel Aviv.

In his remarks opening his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said he understood “that many of the protesters are loyal citizens, most of whom don’t understand the details of the reform at all.”

The protests had been peaceful until March 2, when mounted police used water cannons against crowds in Tel Aviv gathered for a “Day of Disruption.” Another “Day of Disruption” was planned for this week.

How far that disruption extends within the armed forces remains to be seen.

Opposition leaders urged reservists to show up as required. Benny Gantz, who leads the Blue and White party and who was the defense minister until December, called on reservists and regular troops “not to give in to refusal to serve, although you are in pain.”

In a letter leaked on March 3, Tomer Bar, the general who commands the Air Force, appealed to reservists not to miss call-ups,.

“I am aware of and sensitive to the difficulties and challenges we are all facing these days,” he said.

Netanyahu on Sunday tweeted a photograph of himself when he was young and serving in a commando unit. “When we are called to reserves, we always turn up,” he wrote.

“We did the impossible with our brothers in arms,” said the letter, posted on social media. “And you and your cohort are doing everything you can to undermine motivation and to crack up Israeli society.”

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