IDF Values at Core of Crisis of Confidence Between Netanyahu and His Defense Minister

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Netanyahu, Ya'alon and Eisenkot at a tour of the West Bank, 2015.
Netanyahu, Ya'alon and Eisenkot at a tour of the West Bank, 2015.Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO

The conversation on Monday, during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded clarification from and/or reprimanded Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, was not the first time Ya’alon has been summoned under such circumstances. While serving both as deputy chief of staff as well as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, under the Ariel Sharon government a decade ago, Ya’alon found himself more than once under fire for public statements that angered his superiors. Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Yair Golan did not invent anything new: When it comes to media scandals over controversial statements, Ya’alon has been there and done that.

Ya'alon's advisers have always explained that this is the man: He is not two-faced. His principles are clearly defined; there is no way he will compromise or sit by quietly while the political establishment veers away from his ethical values. That is a quite an accurate diagnosis, but it only describes half the picture. The second half is connected to personal and political considerations.

There is a severe crisis of confidence between Netanyahu and Ya’alon.

Defense Minister Ya'alon, left, with Prime Minister Netanyahu at a Likud faction meeting earlier this year.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The roots of the dispute over the orders under which IDF soldiers should open fire during the present wave of terror lie in Ya’alon’s anger at Netanyahu. The defense minister felt the premier did not give enough backing to Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot when the latter commented on the incident involving Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot a prone and incapacitated Palestinian in Hebron in March.

In the meantime, Ya’alon’s anger at Netanyahu has continued to grow, fueled also by political developments over the past two weeks. The defense minister is not immune, for example, to the wave of media reports about Netanyahu’s intention to expand his coalition by adding Zionist Union or Yisrael Beiteinu. In both cases, the defense portfolio could be the "dowry" offered to the new partners.

For his part, Netanyahu needs a stable defense minister he can trust, as was the case during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014. Thus, the main question for the prime minister is not emotional so much as instrumental: Can Ya’alon continue to help him survive politically while maintaining relative calm on the security front, or could they part ways without him paying too high a price?

The urgent announcement for a meeting aroused fears in Ya’alon's circle of a public confrontation or even an attempt by Netanyahu to fire him. However, a few hours after the 50-minute conversation, their two offices issued a joint statement, to the effect that, “Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon met this morning and straightened things out between themselves.” The statement added, “There is and has been no disputing the fact that the IDF is subservient to the political echelons, and officers are free to express their opinion in the proper forums.”

The summons to the meeting and the announcement that followed were geared toward putting Ya’alon back in line. A real reprimand, not to mention a decision to fire the defense, would have quickly exposed Netanyahu to political criticism without any side benefits.

Ya’alon exploited the stage he had Sunday night at the traditional Defense Ministry Independence Day reception to attack first. He gave a long, detailed speech focusing on values-related questions – the righteousness of Israel’s way and the army’s way in dealing with security issues, the need to preserve liberal and democratic principles, and so on. He didn’t talk about so-called purity of arms and didn't just condemn racist behavior. Like in his previous declarations over the past year, the defense minster also discussed equal rights for gay people and the plight of women who file sexual harassment complaints.

Ya’alon spoke tastefully, but it’s reasonable to assume that one of his statements before the IDF brass on Sunday made Netanyahu jump: his call on the military not to be fearful of disagreeing with the political echelons.

The prime minister rightfully understood that once again Ya’alon was backing Golan regarding his Holocaust Remembrance Day speech – which the defense minister supported but the prime minister condemned as “cheapening the Holocaust.” It seems that Netanyahu didn’t understand why Ya’alon reopened an issue he saw as closed. Thus, the premier's office issued an immediate response, which once again slammed Gen. Golan, even as Ya’alon was still speaking.

Deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, May 5, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

In practical terms, Ya’alon’s speech is understandable. Clearly, IDF officers should be able to express themselves freely, and the army is known to have suffered for years in this realm, which is something Ya’alon and Eisenkot yearn to fix.

Some years ago, a senior officer published an article in the army magazine Maarachot, in which he openly analyzed for the first time the fear IDF brass have when it comes to expressing independent opinions. But Ya’alon, in the wake of Golan, is seen as someone who takes this approach one step further; he almost preaches to officers to publicly disagree with politicians. Indeed, this is what many saw in Golan’s remarks – which were perceived as an effort to compare Israel today and prewar Germany: defiance of the country's political leadership and an attempt by an officer in uniform to educate civilians in an area that is not necessarily his concern.

Ya’alon sees himself defending the IDF – from extremist right-wingers who attack the top brass, but also from MKs on the far right side of the coalition and perhaps from the prime minister himself. In the meantime, however, the army has turned into a kind of tennis ball being lobbed between the prime minister and the defense minister, in a match that also involves personal and political considerations.

Ya’alon’s moderate speech Sunday had an additional implicit message for the public: This is a sensitive period that demands a cautious and responsible hand on the wheel, he said, although it is impossible to know who Netanyahu is liable to put in my place if I am forced to leave. Ya'alon was aiming his comments mainly at Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, whom the defense minister has described as radical and irresponsible, as in the case of Operation Protective Edge and other instances.

However, the possibility of Labor joining the government also lurks in the shadows. If the defense portfolio comes up for grabs, there will be someone who will draw a comparison between Isaac Herzog’s lack of experience in defense matters and the failed appointment of Amir Peretz as defense minister on the eve of the Second Lebanon War.