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Saluting the unsung heroes of the Israeli Air Force

The well-deserved high standing of IAF pilots has gone to their heads in a dangerous way. Throwing their weight around to influence government policy is bad enough, but crushing the morale of those who maintain their planes is beyond inexcusable.

Israeli Air Force technicians at work during an aerial exercise at the Ovda base in southern Israel, Oct. 24, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israeli Air Force technicians at work during an aerial exercise at the Ovda base in southern Israel, Oct. 24, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Photo by Ariel Jerozolomski.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, former adviser at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is an award-winning columnist and senior contributing editor at JNS, as well as co-host, with Amb. Mark Regev, of "Israel Undiplomatic" on JNS-TV. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, and on U.S.-Israel relations. Originally from New York City, she moved to Israel in 1977 and is based in Tel Aviv.

Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement on Tuesday evening that he was halting judicial-reform legislation to allow for dialogue between the coalition and opposition, the Israeli Air Force pilots who’ve been engaging in political extortion against the government said they’d return to duty. Their willingness to resume training exercises came with a caveat, however.

As one senior IAF officer warned, if the upshot of the negotiations taking place at the President’s Residence isn’t to their liking, his compatriots will resume their refusal to serve.

Though these cherished members of one of the Israel Defense Forces’ most crucial and elite branches not only crossed a red line—going so far as to threaten not to participate in a potential strike on Iran if their demands aren’t met—they’ve been let off the hook by their superiors.

The only one penalized was IAF Col. Gilad Peled. A key instigator of the pilots’ anti-government protest movement, he was discharged on March 9 for acting “contrary to the orders of the commander of the force and in a manner inappropriate to his rank and status.”

But the following day, IAF commander Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar reversed the decision to sack Peled, after the latter explained that he hadn’t encouraged any fellow Air Force personnel to refuse to serve. And IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi didn’t call either to task. On the contrary, he, too, has been listening to the “concerns” of the men and women in uniform ridiculously asserting that judicial reform will result in the destruction of Israeli democracy and the rise of a dictatorship.

Thankfully, despite the hype, these particular pilots (as well as other anti-government members of elite IDF units, such as the 8200 cyber intelligence corps) are in the minority. Yet the expertise that they possess, funded heftily and happily by taxpayers, awards them the kind of clout that makes for sensationalist headlines.

The trouble is that their well-deserved high standing has gone to their heads in a dangerous way. Throwing their weight around to influence government policy is bad enough, as it sets a perilous precedent. But crushing the morale of those who serve with and under them is beyond inexcusable.

This very point was the subject of a March 28 letter by IAF technicians to Bar, Halevi and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whose justified dismissal by Netanyahu last Sunday may be reversed. The missive, was drafted by reserve fighter pilot Shay Kallach at the request of his brother, who served for 14 years as an IAF technician.

It reads, in part: “We work all hours of the day and night, on Shabbat and holidays, to maintain the aircraft, revving the engines, fueling up, removing pins, closing panels and much additional dirty work. When you [pilots] board a plane during the winter with your flight gloves on, our hands are sore and frozen from the icy iron of the plane so that you can take off and land safely. … We have always maintained and armed the planes brilliantly, being the best soldiers we could be—even though we didn’t pass the selection for the pilots’ training course the way you did. But we always felt first-rate, like you … However, now that you’ve made it clear that our voice isn’t equal to yours, we feel second-rate. … The hands that salute you before you leave the aircraft shelter and taxi to the takeoff point no longer have the strength to do so.”

The letter continues: “We’ll let you in on a secret, our beloved pilots. Every time we prepared the plane for you, it wasn’t really for you; it was for the people of Israel, for the security of the State of Israel, because we … knew that we were serving the nation, without reservation, and that we all share the same unconditional love. Therefore, we will not emulate you and refuse to serve. We won’t rebel and call for a military coup. We … won’t allow political disputes to enter our holiest of holy IDF. But we are calling on you to reverse course immediately—to apologize to us; to salvage the last vestige of respect we still have for you; and restore the enormous motivation that was instilled in us.”

It goes on: “And please don’t explain to us that by refusing to serve you’re rescuing democracy and safeguarding the unity of the people and the state, because through your action, you have burned our ballots. The army and all its soldiers must, at all cost, be kept out of every [political/ideological] argument and dispute.”

Finally, it urges the Air Force to create a “mechanism and deterrence and punishment to ensure that such things don’t happen again for political reasons,” and demands that “those who don’t retract their refusal to serve and apologize be stripped of their wings, as they aren’t worthy to serve the State of Israel alongside us, the technicians of the IAF.”

Amen. It’s high time for the pilots to start saluting the unsung heroes who guarantee their safety, not discount them or their electoral choices as inferior.

Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and commentator. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, as well as on U.S.-Israel relations. The winner of the Louis Rappaport award for excellence in commentary, she is the author of the book “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”

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