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Gallant chides MKs, telling them air force needs US planes, Israeli pilots — report

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant reportedly pushed back against fellow coalition lawmakers who have decried both protesting Israeli Air Force pilots and the Biden administration for their opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul.

During a closed-door briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, Gallant said, “The air force is built on two components: American planes and Israeli pilots. If you have an alternative for one of them, let me know,” according to Channel 12.

The remarks appeared to be the furthest that Gallant has gone in defending Israeli Air Force pilots after hundreds warned they would cease reporting for duty if the government passed the first piece of its judicial legislation package, which it did last week.

The comment appeared to also be a swipe at Gallant’s coalition colleagues who have criticized the US for repeatedly speaking out against the overhaul, with Gallant indicating Israel needs Washington for its security and cannot afford to damage its relationship with the US, which provides Israel advanced aircraft and $3.8 billion in annual security aid.

Gallant also warned that military readiness could decline due to reservists who have stopped showing up for volunteer duty to protest the judicial shakeup, Channel 12 reported.

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“[When] an athlete stops training, he can still run after a week, but not after a month,” Gallant said, according to the network.

He urged the lawmakers in the room to do their part in calming the “storm” surrounding the judicial overhaul, rather than lecturing others, the report said.

Israeli F-35i and American F-15 jets hold an exercise over Israel, November 29, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Gallant visited the IDF’s Central Command Headquarters, and the premier used the opportunity to address concerns regarding the military’s readiness.

“As I see it, the IDF is fully competent. This is true for all challenges on all fronts. Not only is the IDF strong, the economy is also strong, and Israeli society and democracy will emerge [from this period] strengthened,” Netanyahu said.

The leaks reported by Channel 12 on Tuesday on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting added to the public readouts about the briefing that were issued a day earlier.

Those readouts said Gallant warned the committee that national tensions over the government’s controversial judicial overhaul plans could harm Israel’s security, amid heightened tensions in the West Bank and on the Lebanon border.

Israeli army vehicles are seen during a raid in al-Ain refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus, July 26, 2023. (Zain Jaafar/AFP)

Gallant also warned that the unity of the military had been damaged as protests against the overhaul have roiled the ranks of the IDF. Thousands of reservists have said they will end their volunteer reserve duty in protest of the overhaul.

The head of the IDF Operations Directorate, Maj. Gen. Oded Basiuk, was quoted by Hebrew-language media as saying, “I don’t know how long it will take to repair the damage caused to military cohesion.”

Basiuk said the overhaul tensions are “perceived among enemy countries as a weakness and a sign of the internal disintegration of [Israeli] society.”

Gallant said that currently “the IDF is capable of carrying out its tasks,” but there were concerns moving forward if readiness deteriorates further.

He said Israel’s enemies “believe, mistakenly, that they have the opportunity to take advantage of what they perceive as a weakness.”

“We are in a situation where there is a high explosive potential in all arenas,” Gallant said, referring to heightened tensions with the Hezbollah terror group on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, and ongoing violence in the West Bank.

Israeli troops guard the border with Lebanon, July 12, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

For several weeks, as the government advanced the first major bill of its judicial overhaul, a tide that rose to more than 10,000 reservists who frequently show up for duty on a voluntary basis who said they would no longer do so. The reservists have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become if the government’s overhaul plans are realized.

The IDF relies heavily on volunteering reservists, especially pilots, for its routine activities. Defense officials have said pilots could harm their competency by taking breaks from their frequent training exercises, and it would take a significant amount of time to restore their flying abilities.

Gallant was instrumental in getting the divisive overhaul paused in late March. After calling for a halt to the legislation in a public address, Gallant was fired by Netanyahu, leading to massive protests, a nationwide labor strike and the shuttering of Ben Gurion airport. Netanyahu temporarily suspended the legislation, agreed to talks with the opposition under President Isaac Herzog’s aegis that broke down, and eventually reinstated Gallant.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.