Israeli General's Innocent Faux-pas Risks Diplomatic Fallout

Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan has a professional mishap when a prepared speech turns into an undiplomatic assessment about the Turkish government, the U.S. use of military force and the Israeli ties with Russia.

Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Yair Golan addresses Israeli and American officials and officers during a tour of Israeli military facilities involved in the joint 'Juniper Cobra 2016' drill, February 2016.
Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

Deputy Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Yair Golan had a professional mishap on Thursday evening. He had been invited to give a lecture at an academic conference on “current challenges to the IDF.” But what started out as a lecture on the army’s five-year plan turned into a series of undiplomatic assessments, ranging from U.S. policy in the Middle East to disparaging comments about the Turkish regime.

Golan, who is in charge of implementing the five-year plan, delivered prepared remarks about the agenda at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. His troubles began when he decided he had a few minutes to spare and agreed to take audience questions. That’s when he, amid what seemed like an aimless ramble, addressed issues with potential for major diplomatic fallout.

The Obama administration has been trying for years to mediate between Israel and Turkey following the 2010 Marmara flotilla affair. Every few weeks Ankara announces that agreement is at hand. True, senior defense officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, are not enthusiastic about the agreement. And yet it is not clear why it was so urgent for the deputy chief of staff to explain that he views Turkey as a “very problematic factor,” as long as Turkey is ruled by a party with a strong Islamist orientation, by a ruler as adversarial as Recep Erdogan, and that as long as this is the situation – “we can expect problems and challenges.”

Another question from the audience dealt with the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on Hezbollah in Lebanon to take out its arsenal of missiles and rockets. Golan explained persuasively why Israel prefers to start a war only when a sword is at its throat and how the Syrian army was considered for decades the key danger to Israel until it used up its weapons (and exhausted its forces) in a war against its own citizens.

But then, for some reason, he chose to analyze American policy in the region. “The United States has made it a custom of using extensive military force in recent years – I’m not sure it’s to its benefit,” he said.

Ya’alon is in Washington this week trying to make a deal on the size of American military assistance to Israel. It is doubtful that what the Americans want to hear right now is criticism of their foreign policy by an Israeli general.

Golan subsequently said the U.S. Army is an “impressive army,” but added, “in very many ways not much better than we are. There are things in which they are better and things in which they are less good.”

Golan was asked about security coordination with the Russians, which he was put in charge of last year after the Russian Air Force deployed in northern Syria. The Russians “understand excellently” Israel’s red lines and, “in contrast to their literary-film image, they are very comfortable people to talk to.”

Golan was right about most of what he said, but what he said was not all right in that situation. He did not understand the implications of his words – the media coverage and the expected requests for diplomatic clarifications. He discussed issues in public that a person in uniform is meant to address with caution.

This isn't the first time a senior IDF officer takes on the role of a political commentator for a night and causes himself irreparable damage. Golan is a decent and fair officer. In the few media interviews he has given he made the impression of a broadly educated man with great fondness for history. About a year and a half ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu considered him for the position of the IDF chief, and he is likely to be one of two leading candidates to succeed Eisenkot in three years. It's unclear why he chose to make those statements on Thursday. But it is safe to assume that the other candidate, Major-General Aviv Kochavi, took a major step toward being tapped as the next head of the Israeli military.