Dozens of Israeli air force vets threaten not to serve after Netanyahu resumes judicial overhaul

FILE - Israeli military reservists protest against the plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, on a freeway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on Feb. 9, 2023. Dozens of reservists from the Israeli Air Force have released a letter renewing threats to refuse to show up for duty if the government moves ahead with a contentious plan to overhaul the country's judiciary. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg, File) (Ohad Zwigenberg, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press All rights reserved)

TEL AVIV – Dozens of Israeli air force reservists said Wednesday they'll refuse to show up for duty if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government moves ahead with a contentious plan to overhaul the country's judiciary.

The threat comes after Netanyahu said his government would proceed with the overhaul after talks with the opposition to find a compromise faltered. Coalition legislators have since been advancing a legal change to what's known as the “reasonability standard” that critics say would allow the government to pass arbitrary decisions and grant it too much power.

Israeli media reported that 110 air force veterans signed the letter Wednesday saying that if the parliament passes the law that’s moving through the chamber now, or any other law proposed as part of the overhaul, the reservists will not show up for duty.

“Legislation like this grants the government limitless power with no restraint by the judiciary and it will bring us to a point of no return,” the letter said. “We will not serve the military of a country that is not democratic.”

Airmen are seen as the cream of the military’s personnel and irreplaceable elements of many of Israel’s battle plans. Similar letters from reservists in other forces have also been issued in recent days.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony of Israeli military officers, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant criticized the renewed threats by airmen and other officers to stop reporting for duty.

“The calls for refusal and the threats to stop volunteering undermine the basic values of the army as the people’s army — and threaten its competence,” Gallant said. “Anyone who calls for refusal is not acting as part of a legitimate protest. He is harming the most important thing we have — the security of the state of Israel.”

Netanyahu also spoke out against the refuseniks.

“There are no grounds for refusal to serve, on any side, nor will there be. We have one country, one army and one home," he said. "We will stand guard over our home like brothers and sisters, and if the day comes, we will stand behind the flag united, and be determined like an iron fist.”

Netanyahu's government's plans to overhaul the judiciary plunged Israel into an unprecedented crisis earlier this year, prompting a chorus of threats from reservists, who make up the backbone of the country's mostly compulsory military, that they would not show up for service if the plan is followed through.

As the threats mounted, Gallant delivered a speech to the nation about his concerns over the threat that the judicial changes posed to the military, leading Netanyahu to dismiss him in a move that sparked mass spontaneous protests and a day-long labor strike.

That pressure prompted Netanyahu to backtrack on Gallant's firing and pause the overhaul. But once compromise negotiations stumbled, Netanyahu said he was pressing ahead. Another bill in the pipeline would limit the influence of the bar association, a key player in choosing judges, which recently elected to its leadership a staunch opponent to the overhaul.

The overhaul has also sparked a protest movement that draws tens of thousands each Saturday and which during the height of the crisis blocked major roads and stopped trains, succeeding at one point in forcing Netanyahu to be airlifted to the airport for an overseas trip rather than drive.

With the legislation moving ahead, the protests are set to once again ramp up pressure, with another day of disruption planned next week.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and allies in his nationalist religious government say the overhaul is needed to rein in an overly interventionist judiciary and restore power to elected officials.

Critics say the plan would upend Israel's delicate system of checks and balances and push the country toward dictatorship.

The dissent within military ranks over the judicial changes comes at a delicate time, as the army faces threats on multiple fronts and surging violence in the occupied West Bank.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevy, on Wednesday spoke out against recent attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank.

“An IDF officer who stands by when seeing an Israeli citizen planning to throw a Molotov cocktail at a Palestinian house cannot be an officer. This is our way,” Halevy said.