Hatovim le’tayes (the best become pilots) is the motto journalist Moshe “Pommy” Hadar came up with in 1960 to boost volunteerism to the Air Force’s grueling pilot training course.
And, indeed, over the last six decades, this country’s Air Force pilots – whose role defending this country is legendary and unparalleled – have been justly viewed by the society as the best, the brightest and the bravest that Israel has to offer. The cream of the Jewish state’s crop.
But the 37 reserve pilots of the Air Force’s 69th fighter squadron who have made know that to protest the government’s judicial reform plan they will not turn up for regular training flights on Wednesday are exhibiting something that no one ever wants to see in pilots: bad vision.
More precisely: short-sightedness.
Israel is a richly diverse society made up of people who have passionate feelings about many different issues. For some it is religion; for others freedom from religion. For some, it is Jewish settlement throughout Eret Yisrael; for others, it is peace with the Palestinians.
The IDF – though to a less extent the IAF, which is less diverse than the society as a whole – is composed of many people for whom these convictions go to the root of their being, to the very depths of their souls.
Sometimes the government will make decisions that go against these convictions. When that happens, society’s expectation – up until now – has always been that the country’s soldiers, pilots, sailors, security officers and Mossad agents check their convictions at the door, and show up for service regardless of whether they agree with the government's policies, or not.
Certainly, there are exceptions, such as if a soldier is asked to carry out a blatantly illegal order. But when it comes to government policy, this country has survived – despite its ideological and religious diversity – because of a common understanding that if soldiers only show up and carry out their missions if they agree with the government or its policies, then there will be no country.
This is why the actions of the 37 pilots of the 69th fighter squadron are so problematic. By refusing to show up for reserve duty in support of a cause they feel passionately about, they are paving the way for others to take similar actions if the government pursues policies they passionately oppose.
Eighteen years ago, during the withdrawal from Gaza, there were soldiers and reservists who passionately opposed the uprooting of the Gush Katif. Amid murmurings by some soldiers that they would not carry out orders, and by some reservists that they would not show up for reserve duty, various pundits and politicians railed against this phenomenon – saying that it was unthinkable that soldiers would listen to their rabbis rather than their officers and that this type of behavior would undermine the state.
But if reserve pilots today say they will not train because of the present government’s policies, why will religious soldiers in an elite reserve commando unit not have the right to take the same course of action if – let one’s imagination run wild here for a minute – there is a genuine peace process with the Palestinians in some 25 years that may necessitate the uprooting of a handful of settlements?
What moral right will anyone have to tell soldiers passionately opposed to that type of policy that they must not refuse to show up for reserve duty? Actions once deemed beyond the pale used by one side today will be used by the other tomorrow.
Despite the chatter that Israel has never faced this type of situation in the past, it has.
When and why IDF soldiers refused to follow government orders in the past
During the first Lebanon War, for example, there were collective cases of soldiers refusing to serve that were designed to influence the government.
In addition to the high-profile case of Eli Geva, the much-respected armored brigade commander who gave up his command rather than carry out the order to lead his troops into West Beirut, entire reserve units refused to take part in the war.
As Udi Lebel, a researcher of civil-military relations at Bar-Ilan University’s school of communications pointed out last year ago when the Lebanon War’s 40th anniversary was marked, this was the first time that the IDF, whose backbone at the time was the left-leaning kibbutzim and moshavim, was fighting a war directed by a right-wing government. These actions sent the government messages that they could not take the IDF’s carrying out its objectives as a given.
The same is true today, with the reserve pilots trying to send the same message to the current government.
According to Lebel, the lesson that the IDF internalized from the First Lebanon War was that it must not become over-reliant on just one sector of the country, as the army at that time was on the kibbutzim and moshavim.
Not coincidentally, three years after the end of the Lebanon War, amid the First Intifada, religious pre-military academies began to flourish as the army recognized that it was engaged in activities opposed by the left-wing and, as a result, needed to get other sectors of Israeli society into pivotal roles in the army.
“It’s like a basketball team,” Lebel said at the time. “You always want to have several different five-man combinations that you can put on the floor at any time to run a play. When you are in one situation, you put in one squad, when you are in another, you put in another. But you need all the different squads.”
The pilot’s actions, however, raise the question of whether, when it comes to the Air Force, there are enough five-man combinations to take up the slack if one squad decides not to play.
IDF soldiers refusing to follow "illegal and immoral" orders in the Second Intifada
The last time Israel faced this type of open rebellion from pilots was in September 2003, in the midst of the Second Intifada. A group of 27 pilots, both reserve pilots and a smattering in active service, signed a letter sent to the head of the Air Force at the time, Dan Halutz, saying they would refuse to carry out “illegal and immoral strikes” in the West Bank and Gaza. The letter questioned Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations, and its impetus began after the IAF dropped a bomb on the house of Hamas military leader, Salah Shehade, killing him, but also 14 members of his family.
This letter was followed shortly by 13 reservists in Sayeret Matkal who also wrote a public letter saying they would refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza.
Some maintain that these letters – and the internal divisions they reflected about how the country was waging its war against terrorists – were among the many factors that led Ariel Sharon to believe an IDF withdrawal from Gaza was necessary. Sharon, who remembered how internal division plagued the Lebanon War, of which he was the main architect, wanted to avoid a repeat performance while trying to quell the Second Intifada.