Netanyahu's Attack on the Deputy Chief of Staff Achieves Its Goal: Deterrence

The storm surrounding Yair Golan's Holocaust day speech, in which he compared trends in Israeli society to 1930s Germany, seems to guarantee that contenders for the army's top spot won't dare to be as outspoken.

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

There is a clear common denominator behind two developments igniting Israeli defense and political circles in recent days.

One of these developments is the storm surrounding remarks by the deputy chief of staff, Yair Golan, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day; the other is distribution of the state comptroller’s draft report on the last war in Gaza.

In both cases, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in political hot water. Regarding Golan, there were demands that the deputy chief of staff be disciplined. Regarding the 2014 war, his own functioning was attacked in the state comptroller’s report.

In both cases, Netanyahu is embracing the easy way out – shifting responsibility onto the army. Yesterday he publicly attacked Yair Golan, and as for the war, he’d like to roll the blame for the problems that arose onto the Israel Defense Forces professional leadership, and will do just that if the state comptroller report turns into a full-blown public scandal.

As for Golan, it’s a pattern. In his public appearances, the deputy chief of staff analyzes matters without pussyfooting. He does not hide behind the party line and does not cater to his audience. Nor however does he seem to think about the effect of his statements before making them. Much the same happened at Bar-Ilan University in late March, at a lecture in which he freely expressed his opinions about the regional policies of the United States, Russia and Turkey, though the press didn’t pick up on the story. And now it happened again last week, when he compared the history of Nazi Germany with trends recently developing in Israeli society.

Golan hinted at real things that have upset him, and many others among the army brass: the murder of the Dawabshe family and the teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir;racist incitement at demonstrations and on social media;hassling politicians on the left and harassing Arabs.

The warning about these things, and the call for soul-searching, were appropriate; the comparison with Nazis was over the top, perhaps gratuitous. One could also wonder about the identity of the speaker – an army officer is not an educator, nor an intellectual or political figure. One can certainly question Golan’s timing, the eve of Holocaust Day.

The people casting arrows at the deputy chief of staff, some with a savagery not evident towards top army brass even on the left, focus on the historic context of his words, but beneath that lies another motive for the attack. Shutting him down, to the point of demanding that he be fired, is a direct continuation of the right’s assault against the Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot regarding the rules of engagement affair (which began with Eisenkot’s “scissors” speech (“ I don’t want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl with scissors”) ; and the trial, which began on Monday, of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot dead an immobilized Palestinian terrorist.

Don't question the occupation

It apparently isn’t the comparison between Israel and Germany that irked the critics of the military leadership. It was the mere issuing of a warning about damage caused by the occupation — even by categorically non-leftie generals like the top IDF triad — that got their goat. Senior figures in the Habayit Hayehudi party and some Likudniks as well see nothing wrong with Israel’s continued control over the Palestinians and in the struggle against terrorism, anything goes. Hence anybody trying to lay down red lines limiting the use of force, or warning about the ethical implications of its use, is sabotaging the Israeli struggle, and hurting our image abroad, and should therefore be fought with any and every means.

On Sunday, Netanyahu joined the attack on Golan, accusing him of belittling the Holocaust. The prime minister also complained about Golan in private conversations with the defense minister and chief of staff, knowing full well both would vigorously reject any attempt to fire the deputy chief of staff or deliberate his future. Culture Minister Miri Regev, an associate of the prime minister, demanded that Golan resign — in a statement that must be regarded with irony by anybody following Regev’s own career.

A career stopper

Even if the attacks from the right don’t bring Golan’s career to a screeching halt, clearly they will leave a mark. Golan had been described as a defense hawk and left a marked impression on Netanyahu when interviewing candidates for the chief of staff position (Ya’alon is the one who prevailed on the choice of Eisenkot). It will be very hard to promote Golan to that position now. Even beforehand, the far right had stuck the label of “extreme leftist” onto General Nitzan Alon (who said that right-wing violence in the West Bank is one of the reasons for Palestinian terrorism).

It seems deterrence has been achieved ahead of the next round: Those who want to be considered contenders for the top seat filled by Eisenkot will hesitate to demonstrate the kind of spine Golan, the incumbent, has shown. They certainly won’t take the risk of making statements like Golan’s (which didn’t impress Eisenkot either, in content or timing).

Meanwhile, the affair of the state comptroller’s report continues to simmer. Looking back, the attack by Netanyahu’s office on State Comptroller Yosef Shapira was premature and excessive. The draft report is sharply worded but one could argue that it is parallel in its conclusions to the Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War, or the Agranat Report on the Yom Kippur War.

Moreover, the Comptroller’s arrows are not aimed at Netanhyahu alone – the criticism is also levelled at Ya’alon and the chief of staff at the time, Benny Gantz.

There is no obstacle that Netanyahu, the man who weathered the Mavi Marmara crisis unscathed, and any number of other scandals, cannot avoid by shifting responsibility onto his partners. His relations with Ya’alon are tense anyway, based on their differences over the Hebron soldier, and the support Ya’alon is giving to Golan. As for Gantz, he’s a perfect target – he isn’t even in uniform any more and is often described as a potential candidate for prime minister on the left.

Shapira's last word

Shapira, who was only appointed to the job of state comptroller after Netanyahu had thoroughly studied his characteristics, has not yet distinguished himself for standing up to the regime. In some cases he signed some pretty sharp draft reports but turned out to be amenable to softening the final version. But he should be embraced, not excoriated, and this time Netanyahu may have made a mistake. The outrage demonstrated by his circles and by the defense minister against Shapira may just stiffen the state comptroller’s spine this time, leading him to stick with his original version. And as is the way of snowstorms in Israel, a few leaks from the draft will suffice to create a political snowball. Already yesterday, the families of casualties from Operation Protective Edge were demanding an official inquiry. That is not something Netanyahu wants: If the snowball keeps rolling, he could find himself pitted against Ya’alon and the whole top brass again, as happened in the affair of Golan and Azaria.