Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's farewell. For now.

Photographer: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Israel's Army Gets Pulled Deeper Into the Political Mire

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision last week to fire Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon continues to roil Israeli society.

The break began with the shooting and killing of an already neutralized Palestinian terrorist by a member of the Israeli Defense Forces. Ya’alon, who has consistently called for high ethical standards in the IDF, decried the shooting.

Although images of the incident that circulated on the Internet seemed damning (though others argued that the video supported the soldier’s version of the story), the political right condemned Ya’alon for “siding” with a terrorist over one of his own soldiers.

QuickTake Two-State Solution

The video, however, puts Ya’alon on solid ground, both moral and apparently evidentiary. Had the controversy ended there, he might still be defense minister. But just a few weeks later, he came to the defense of the IDF deputy chief of staff, Major General Yair Golan, and matters became more complicated.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day (a powerful commemoration during which Israelis come to a complete stop as air raid sirens sound across the country), Golan also spoke about the importance of morality in the IDF. But he went further: "If there's something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance it's the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then -- 70, 80 and 90 years ago -- and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016."

Likening events in Israel to any aspect of Hitler's Germany violated a fundamental social and cultural taboo in Israel. Not surprisingly, the outcry was immediate and broad-based. Netanyahu, furious, asked Ya’alon for a “clarification.” The prime minister clearly expected that Ya’alon would at least reprimand his deputy, but the defense minister did precisely the opposite -- he stood up for Golan’s right to express himself.

Ya’alon then went even further and used the brouhaha as an opportunity to condemn Israel’s political right. The attacks are "intentional, distorted interpretations" of Golan's comments and “are an additional attempt of a worrisome campaign to inflict political damage on the IDF and its officers,” Ya’alon said.

Even though Golan later backed off his analogy and apologized, the speech set off a public duel between the army and the government. Ya’alon’s departure was virtually inevitable and followed only weeks later.

Israel has a long history of public criticism of its army, and in the past such critiques rarely got people dismissed; indeed, they often catapulted them to national prominence. In 1949, for example, S. Yizhar (the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky), wrote "Khirbet Khizeh," a novella that was deeply critical of the IDF’s treatment of some Arab villages it captured and destroyed during the War of Independence. Even though Israelis accepted that the war had been a battle for survival, the critique was welcomed. "Khirbet Khizeh" was added to Israel’s high school curriculum, and S. Yizhar was elected to the Knesset several times (representing Ben-Gurion’s Mapai, the predecessor of the Labor Party). Self-criticism has been central to Israel’s ethos since the country's establishment.

So why the outcry this time? Several factors seem to have coalesced. First, Golan was not incorrect. An increasingly dogmatic right wing has been on the rise in Israel. It is less open to the sort of critiques that Yizhar penned decades ago, and that Amos Oz and David Grossman, two of Israel’s finest novelists, continue to produce today. The virulence of the attacks against Golan, particularly from the hard right, may stem from the fact that some of Israeli society recognized itself in what he said.

Second, the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust still has paramount cultural, historical and even religious significance in Israel, and any attempt to liken Nazi Germany to the social ills Israel is experiencing was bound to strike many as heresy. Golan’s point was on target -- his rhetoric was poorly chosen.

Finally, Netanyahu has not shied from trying to define the limits of national discourse. Just last year, David Grossman withdrew his name from candidacy for the 2015 Israel Prize because he objected to Netanyahu’s meddling in the selection process. Judges also resigned, citing the prime minister’s heavy-handed involvement in a process that should have been entirely apolitical.

Netanyahu overplayed his hand in that instance. He may now have done so again. Ya’alon was a highly respected defense minister (and chief of staff before that), and many Israelis were proud that he stood up for the rule of law in the Hebron case and for freedom of expression in the Golan affair. Netanyahu's manhandling of Ya’alon is proving highly unpopular.

Change may be close at hand. “Israelis were lucky to have Ya’alon as defense chief these last few years, and this luck now seems to have run out," Moshe Arens, a respected right-of-center politician and writer, said.  “A political earthquake is in the offing.”

If Netanyahu, usually a masterful political tactician, did overplay his hand, Ya’alon’s exit from politics may be temporary. In that case, the departure the prime minister precipitated may prove to have been his own. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net