In Dealing With Violent Officer, IDF Brass Neglected Media Front

In their support of Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner, who slammed his rifle into the face of a Danish protester, right-wing leaders wronged thousands of religious soldiers and officers.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A filmed incident, in which an Israel Defense Forces officer is shown striking a foreign protester, ended Wednesday with the expected result: IDF chief Benny Gantz and GOC Command chief Nitzan Alon's decision to dismiss Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner and bar him from command duty for the next two years. With public debate on the matter reaching fever pitch, the IDF chief and Alon did well to return the discussion to its factual base.

According to the GOC Command probe, Eisner failed professionally in his preparation ahead of the left-wing protest; in his lack of control of the incident itself; and in his only partial report on what had taken place after it. In addition, Eisner was singled out for a moral failure, when he lost his composure and applied force in a manner unsuitable to the threat he faced (a limited and almost every day threat in the West Bank). One could not ignore, also, the damage the footage of his conduct did to the Israeli attempt to stop foreign provocateurs, who arrive in the West Bank under the guise of peace activists. In face of all that, the IDF chief had no choice but to send Lt. Col. Eisner on his way.

Israeli army Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner hitting an unidentified activist with an M-16 rifle, April 14, 2012.Credit: AP / ISM

Gantz and Alon responded swiftly by suspending Eisner immediately following the footage's release, investigating an uncomplicated incident, and dismissing the Lt. Col. It's hard to say the same thing about their decisions about media treatment of the incident. The affair inflated into a hot public debate, with the arguments presented by both sides becoming ever more hysterical. Under these circumstances, a statement by the IDF Spokesman Yoav Mordechai, or an interview with him, eloquent as he may be, are not enough.

It seems that what's required is an immediate, short public appearance by the army chief, in which he could, in his own voice, clarify to citizens and soldier what suddenly appeared as needing clarification: that the IDF doesn't permit its soldiers to strike unarmed civilians with their weapons. Between visiting exercises and giving a flower to a Holocaust survivor, Gantz should have found time for the media.

The vacuum left by the IDF chief was filled by Eisner's PR representatives. The question of the media representation of a troubled officer is a loaded one. In an affair such as this, the IDF spokesman automatically shifts into representing the system, not the officer at its center. But Eisner (similarly to Lt. Col. Omri Bruberg from the Na'alin incident, or like Moshe [Chico] Tamir, and others before him) is fighting for his life, for his name.He too deserves representation. Trouble is, that this job was taken up this time by media advisers from the fringe of the right side of the political map, who dragged their client into a corner that caused him a significant amount of damage.

That's why we witnessed Eisner on his way to get treatment for his hand, which was hurt in the incident; on his way to the synagogue; and even talking to a bereaved mother.

In all of these places he was closely - albeit, allegedly, accidentally - escorted by journalists. When on Tuesday Eisner's verbal assault on Gantz and Alon was televised, in which he said that "the stories [his version] don't interest them," there wasn o turning back.

But the damage Eisner suffered as a result of the political campaign is only a small part of the problem. The bigger issue has to do with the automatic support the beleaguered officer received from the right and of religious Zionists. But it would be nave to claim that the force of the media assault on Eisner has nothing to do with his beard or the yarmulke on his head. And still, it's hard to understand public statements such as "we're proud of you," along with the enlistment of rabbis, MKs, and settler leaders to prevent the officer's dismissal, all while severely attacking the IDF chief.

Purity of arms (a problematic concept in and of itself) isn't only an issue with secular soldiers, just as staying true to the mission isn't just the trait of religious soldiers. It’s hard to think of an argument that would justify the kind of brute force Eisner used when he slammed his rifle in the face of the Danish protester, and all the officers with whom I discussed the matter in recent days displayed an almost instinctual rejection of his behavior. It was actually the vocal support of Eisner, which did nothing to aid him, that wronged hundreds and thousands of religious soldiers and officers, who are making every effort to maintain proper conduct under difficult circumstances. In the way he was filmed last Saturday in the Jordan Valley, Eisner gave his community no reason for pride.



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