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Netanyahu government advances judicial reforms as protests intensify to include IDF reservists

El Al might be unable to fly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a state trip to Rome this week because too few employees are willing to work the trip

(JTA) — The ninth week of protests in Israel brought hundreds of thousands of opponents to judicial reform into the streets on Saturday night, but within hours Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition advanced the legislation through the Knesset.

Protests against the reforms extended to areas of Israel’s establishment where political protest was once unthinkable, including among combat pilots and staff for the national airline, El Al.

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 right-wing leader, Giorgia Meloni.

But others are making clear that their refusal to show up to work represents a protest against Israel’s right-wing government, which is seeking to sap the judiciary of its power.

Thirty-seven of 40 combat pilots in the military reserves said they would skip the first day of a 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, but a mass action by one of the most elite units is unheard of. The squadron in this case was responsible for destroying a nascent nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007.

The combat pilots joined a growing protest movement against legislation that would allow a simple majority of 61 Knesset members to overrule the Supreme Court and constrain the court in other ways. The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Sunday advanced the legislation, which has already passed the full Knesset on a first of the three required votes to become law, making only limited changes.

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 including Arab and LGBTQ Israelis.

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 said 400,000 people turned out for the ninth weekly Saturday night protest, over 150,000 in Tel Aviv alone.

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 Thursday, when mounted police used water cannons against crowds in Tel Aviv gathered for a “Day of Disruption.” Another “Day of Disruption” is 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 Friday, Tomer Bar, the general who commands the Air Force, appeals to reservists not to miss call-ups, while saying, “I am aware of and sensitive to the difficulties and challenges we are all facing these days.”

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 said.

Among the dozens of appeals to Netanyahu to stop the reforms a standout was from 10 of the troops who joined his older brother, Yonatan, in rescuing hostages held on a plane in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. Yonatan was killed during the raid, which is seen as emblematic of Israel’s refusal to deal with terrorists and willingness to go to extreme lengths to rescue Jews in peril. Benjamin Netanyahu has since made his brother his lodestar.

The 10 veterans were especially offended by Netanyahu’s likening of the protesters — whom they have joined — to the settlers who rampaged through a West Bank village last week, burning houses and cars and injured dozens.

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

This article originally appeared on JTA.org.

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