Ya'alon to IDF Officers: Speak Your Mind, Even if It Contradicts Government

After army deputy chief causes storm for highlighting 'concerning societal trends in Israel,' the defense minister urges military leadership to view itself as educators, not just fighters.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at Yad Mordechai's Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. May 5, 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon told Israeli Defense Forces commanders they should continue to speak their minds, even if their positions contradicted those of the country's government.

His comments come after IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan likened recent developments in Israeli society to processes that unfolded in Europe before the Holocaust, setting off a political storm that saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blast the statement as "outrageous."

A response by the Prime Minister's Office, published before Ya'alon had even completed his speech, said: "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives his full support to the IDF, its commanders and its soldiers. The prime minister is adamant in his opinion that the comparison to Nazi Germany was inappropriate, both in content and timing and caused [Israel] international damage," the statement said.

Speaking Sunday evening during an Independence Day event, Ya'alon urged army officers to view themselves not just as military leaders, but also as educators. "A focus on the IDF's ethics, its spirit, and how we should strive to be is central to every commander, no matter how low-level or senior they are," he said.

He urged those present to speak their minds "even if [what you have to say] isn't part of the mainstream, even if it differs from the postions and ideas voiced by senior commanders or the political leadership."

In response, Netanyahu's office wrote that "Army commanders voice their options freely in the reverent forums on issues for which they are responsible. The IDF is the people's army and it needs to be kept clean from political divisions."

Ya'alon urged the commanders not to hesitate. "Be brave not just in the battle field, but also at the discussion table. A good army is an army whose commanders feel safe in their ability to voice their views at any stage, knowing no harm will come to them," said the defense minister.

Referring to the case of an Israeli soldier facing manslaughter charges for shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant to death in Hebron last month, Ya'alon said that in recent months "we have found ourselves struggling to address a new radical minority, active mostly on social media. Part of its ideals has crept and trickled into the mainstream of our society and is now trying to influence the IDF and its values and characters.

"This is a battle not just over the character of the IDF, but of also over our society," he said, adding that a continued attack on the army and Israel's values could lead to a "disaster" for Israel. "I admit that I am losing sleep over this issue, but it also strengthens my resolve," he said. "This is not a matter of right or left, for most of Israeli society across the political spectrum strives to preserve the IDF's values."

"We know how to address [those who violate the army's values] — we will not allow happy trigger fingers or vindictive vendettas or tempers to be lost," continued the defense minister. "We well defined those who err, but we will have zero tolerance for those who act in defiance of our rules and values."

"The IDF's values are with us since it was founded, and have matured with it over the years. Morality, purity of arms, our ability to investigate and admit mistakes — these are the bedrock of a healthy and qualified army. Our soldiers and their commanders know the way and know it is just; they know our right to fight those who wish us ill," he said.

Ya'alon added that a moral army and society was "the best guarantee for our society" — even before "smart weapons and precise intelligence."