Netanyahu's Rivals Use Hebron Shooting to Fire Political Bullet at Prime Minister

Netanyahu panics after realizing that his electorate sees the soldier who fatally shot a 'neutralized' terrorist as an Israeli hero; Bennett is right to criticize the PM, except that he's absolutely wrong.

Netanyahu and Bennett at the Knesset, January, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

If we are to use a phrase from the battle terminology so favored by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, what he did Sunday to the prime minister was to fire a (political) bullet at him right between the eyes. Despite the discomfort of using this metaphor under the circumstances, there’s no other way to describe the dispute between them at the cabinet meeting.

While Avigdor Lieberman has been striking brutally at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from outside the coalition, Bennett is kicking him mercilessly from within — both over the soldier who shot and killed a "neutralized" terrorist. The two have spotted a golden opportunity to distinguish themselves from Netanyahu, who since the last elections has been moving so far to the right that there’s almost no room left for them in that corner.

The confrontation in the cabinet Sunday was another chapter in the ongoing struggle between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi leaders over the right-wing vote, which only a year and 10 days ago ended with the victory of the former and defeat of the latter.

To be fair, the education minister and Habayit Hayehudi chairman has more than once over the past year has attacked the premier from the left. He objected to Netanyahu’s call that “the Arabs are coming to the polls in droves;” he hastened to declare, even before Netanyahu, that the attack in Duma that killed the Dawabsheh family had been carried out by Jews; and he supported Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot after the latter’s “scissors speech,” even as the prime minister remained silent.

Bennett’s argument in this case is that in the immediate aftermath of the release of a video the prime minister and defense minister cannot possibly determine that the act was grave and the shooting carried out in contravention of the norms and ethics of the Israel Defense Forces. In doing so, he argued, they were sealing the fate of the soldier and essentially making the Military Police investigation superfluous.

Formally, Bennett is correct. Practically speaking, however, it’s clear that he’s not. People all over the world are convinced that Israelis execute attackers who no longer pose a threat. The video ostensibly shows a classic execution of this nature. Former Israeli ambassador to the United States MK Michael Oren (Kulanu) said Sunday that as far as the Palestinians are concerned, the incident in Hebron was the most successful attack carried out in the past eight months, because of the devastating diplomatic fallout for Israel.

Netanyahu and Ya’alon had to issue a clear and sharp response. It was their obligation as statesmen. Silence would have been interpreted abroad as a lack of condemnation or even as acquiescence to the barbaric act. As often happens, Netanyahu panicked when he realized that his electorate, his right-wing “base,” supports the soldier big-time and sees him as an Israeli hero, a modern Trumpeldor, or, as the soldier’s mother claims, a twin of the former Sayeret Matkal commander Moshe Ya’alon, who assassinated the arch-terrorist Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) in Tunis in 1988, and then confirmed the kill.

There was no way Netanyahu could come out ahead in Sunday's argument. The narrative had turned emotional, not legal or moral. He realized this on Thursday. Several hours after stating that the shooting had contravened IDF norms, he hurried to tweet against the UN Human Rights Council which had once again passed an anti-Israel resolution. It was as if he was trying to fix the “damage” of his earlier statement.

In recent years there has been talk in the IDF about the “strategic corporal,” the low-ranking soldier who with one act – an unjustified shooting, for example – can drag the whole region into violence. The soldier who fired that shot in Hebron has already managed to drag the Israeli cabinet into political chaos and raised the level of bad blood to new heights.