Analysis

Defense Minister's Attack on Controversial Settler Rabbi Is a Gamble for the Army

Lieberman's ultimatum to the head of the pre-military academy whose remarks have angered many in and out of the IDF is pushing the religious Zionist community close ranks.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a memorial service for soldiers who fell in the Second Lebanon War, June 9, 2016.
Gil Eliahu

Unexpectedly, a war over the army’s policies has erupted within the ranks of what is often termed the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Yet the dispute had long since left the confines of the army and had even crossed ideological lines.

Ostensibly, the latest argument is over statements by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, the second in command of Bnei David, a pre-military academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli. Last summer, the media reported on a videotaped lecture in which he assailed secular Jews, liberals, gays and the Israel Defense Forces brass. After heavy pressure by the Defense Ministry and senior IDF officers, he issued a semi-apology in which he said his words were taken out of context. But a series of subsequent statements, including last week’s recording of him assailing women who serve in the IDF, brought him under renewed fire.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was in Washington last week, lambasted Levinstein from there. And Wednesday, he escalated the war by delivering an ultimatum to the heads of Bnei David. In a letter to Levinstein, he put forward an unequivocal demand: Resign your post at Bnei David and its affiliated hesder yeshiva (which combines Torah study with army service), or I will revoke the ministry’s recognition and funding of both the academy and the yeshiva. He also sharpened his tone toward his rival in the governing coalition, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whom he accused of defending people “who are trying to turn Israel into Iran.”

The threat comes a few days after Levinstein’s senior partner at Bnei David, Rabbi Eli Sadan, published a video clip for academy graduates in which he rejected any attempt to wage a culture war in the IDF. Levinstein’s comments also upset some senior officers who are Bnei David graduates; they said his remarks don’t reflect their values or what they learned in the IDF.

But Lieberman’s frontal assault has led the religious Zionist community to close ranks. Both Knesset members and rabbis responded harshly. At the same time, Channel 10 reported on an open letter by dozens of rabbis who oppose religious soldiers serving in mixed-gender battalions.

Even if the army brass are now trying to step back from an open confrontation with this community (they even refrained from issuing a condemnation of Levinstein's remarks last week), they remain on the front lines of the clash, which has at times included direct accusations against Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.

For Bennett, the storm broke at an excellent time. He is positioning himself as the right-wing alternative to Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is also far from enthusiastic over Lieberman’s job performance, or the praise the defense minister has won from media pundits for playing the “responsible adult.”

Lieberman’s assault on Bnei David – the first pre-army academy and a flagship religious Zionist institution – allows Bennett to pose as its protector. This is especially true because the controversy can be presented as an attempt to limit rabbis’ freedom of speech, and takes place against the background of Bnei David’s impressive list of graduates who have served in the officer corps and elite units and have fallen in Israel’s wars. The almost overt message is, “Let’s see how you manage without us.”

In 2009, then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided to expel a yeshiva in the settlement of Har Bracha from the hesder program because its rabbis urged students to disobey orders to evacuate settlements. Following a long, complex process, the yeshiva was punished, but Barak’s successor, Moshe Ya’alon, canceled the sanctions in 2013, after the yeshiva’s management issued a lame retraction.

Now, Lieberman is threatening similar sanctions. But the institution he has chosen to clash with is far more important and prestigious, and receives far more media exposure.

His staff believes this offers an excellent political opportunity: He can defend the IDF, and also female soldiers – especially those in combat units – against rabbis' crude remarks. With the governing coalition already nervous and restless over the criminal investigation of Netanyahu, this is a good opportunity to tell the secular public that someone is protecting its interests.

Lieberman’s associates said last night that he’s determined to go all the way and secure Levinstein’s resignation, even if this requires hurting Bnei David. Not surprisingly, members of Bennett’s Habayit Heyhudi party have been taunting him by bringing up his unrealized threats to assassinate Ismail Haniyeh, the former Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip.

But it’s not clear whether Lieberman has a legal basis for action against Bnei David – or whether the IDF can afford a prolonged clash with a community so widely represented in its combat units.

Lieberman is often described as someone with sharp political instincts. But it’s far too early to tell whether his current gamble will pay off for him.