On Hebron Shooting, Israeli Defense Minister Emerges as Government's Only Moral Voice

Minister Bennett claims to be the most ethical of the bunch as he competes with MK Lieberman over who is more supportive of the soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian; Israel has yet to find out why Palestinian President Abbas rejected its peace initiative.

An illustration of Netanyahu looking over Ya'alon's shoulder as Lieberman and Bennett dance on the latter's head.
Amos Biderman

The Israel Defense Forces can now discard the code of ethics drawn up for the army by Prof. Asa Kasher. Instead of a philosophical text, the IDF can distribute the speech delivered by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in the Knesset plenum on Monday. His remarks, which obviously came from the heart, were pointed, straightforward and made no attempt to play to the right wing or the masses. “An army that is becoming bestial”; “an army that has lost its moral backbone”; “militancy and manipulations.” Even left-wing leaders did not dare use such strong language against the soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian in Hebron last week.

In terms of courage, integrity and moral values, Ya’alon emerged with glory this week. His words were highly dramatic for him as a political animal in a party where most of the constituency supports the soldier’s actions. If politics were Ya’alon’s chief concern, he would have chosen softer, more ambivalent words. Some observers believe he committed political hara-kiri. He has long since lost the backing of the hard right in Likud – which initially saw him as its leader – due to his uncompromising struggle against rampant illegal building by West Bank settlers. This week, he also lost significant numbers in the less extreme, almost mainstream right that has taken the soldier to its heart.

The political risk Ya’alon knowingly undertook is all the more striking when compared with Netanyahu’s behavior. The premier’s first media statement last Thursday – after the video of the Hebron incident became public – was unequivocal in talking about an action that was contrary to IDF values. He was still in sync with Ya’alon. Since then, under pressure from the street and for fear of losing ground to Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu has been on a steady rightward course.

Unintentionally, Netanyahu initially found himself on the “left” side in the Hebron incident. That in itself is enough to disorient him. He’s so careful not to be perceived as a moderate, not to leave his rivals an inch of ground in the right-wing arena – and suddenly, disaster strikes! His media pronouncements became increasingly anemic. Suddenly he decided not to return the bodies of Palestinian terrorists to their families in the West Bank. In another minute he’ll declare the addition of 5,000 homes in the extremist Yitzhar settlement. And, all of a sudden, the words of the detained soldier’s father “touched” his heart.

That’s the least Netanyahu could do in the face of the cruel, unending battering he’s taking from Bennett and Lieberman: The former blasted his archenemy Ya’alon – and also the prime minister, along the way – on television; the latter took himself to the military court deliberating the soldier’s actions. No one should be surprised if Lieberman shows up at the soldier’s parents’ home in Ramle for the Shabbat eve meal. Apron-clad, he’ll position himself in the kitchen and slice the vegetables for the salad.

Bennett and Lieberman are competing for the support of the same public, and it’s hard to say which is doing it better. Bennett has more effective tools: He’s a member of both the cabinet and security cabinet, and he makes a good impression. Lieberman is in the opposition, and the slings and arrows he’s shooting at Netanyahu are no less than a war crime. And both of them are battering their common adversary with whatever comes to hand.

Faults and defaults

“I’m the one who set high moral criteria, Ya’alon is the one who passed sentence,” Bennett says. “My default is that a soldier is protecting civilians and deserves defense and backing from his superiors. Ya’alon’s default is different.”

Bennett is furious at Ya’alon’s scathing attack on him in the Knesset. Bennett says he is not the one who’s using the dark episode in Hebron for cynical political manipulation: “Ya’alon is conducting a continuing political campaign at the soldier’s expense. Stop already! That’s the difference between us. I fell silent at a certain point. I am letting the investigators and court do their work. He screams out details of an operational investigation from the Knesset podium for all the world to hear.”

I put it to Bennett that if Ya’alon wanted to reap political capital, he would not be speaking in a way that only harms him in Likud and the right wing. “You didn’t understand him,” Bennett seethed. “The nonstop political campaign he’s waging is aimed at justifying his basic mistake of passing early judgment. Netanyahu grasped it quickly, and stopped. Ya’alon is continuing. There’s a major moral error here. The value I’m talking about is backing IDF soldiers, even when they make mistakes.”

Can you call the shooting of a critically wounded individual – preceded by the soldier allegedly telling his buddy that the terrorist mustn’t come out of the attack alive – a “mistake,” I asked the education minister. Ya’alon’s aides say you and the other security cabinet members received a report about the results of the investigation last Sunday, I added.

“Anyone who says we were given all the details of the investigation is lying,” Bennett said, bristling. “I heard Ya’alon say I could have called him before I spoke and he would have updated me. That is feigned innocence. I’ve often asked the army for information and he forbids them from giving it. He’s a bunker when it comes to providing information to the members of the security cabinet, who are obliged to be informed. For months I’ve been asking for information about something related to the south of the country, and he is refusing.”

I asked Bennett whether his incessant run-ins with Ya’alon aren’t destabilizing the coalition. No, he says. “If there’s a danger, it’s due to the behavior of errant MKs in Likud, such as David Amsalem and Avraham Nagosa [who are boycotting Knesset votes to protest the government’s refusal to bring the remaining Ethiopian Falashmura to Israel] and Oren Hazan. The parties are working harmoniously. This is a functioning government. Netanyahu should deal with those people.”

I asked Bennett whether the meeting this week between him, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked from his party and Lieberman, in the Knesset cafeteria, was about ways to prevent Zionist Union from joining the coalition. “No,” Bennett replied. Then what did you talk about? “About life,” he said.

Suspicious minds

Two weeks ago, Barak Ravid published a sensational report in Haaretz about secret talks between Israel and the Palestinians concerning the return of Ramallah and Jericho to Palestinian security control. The two cities were intended as a pilot for an initiative which, if successful, would be expanded to other areas of the West Bank. According to the report, the talks foundered because of “conditions” laid down by Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but was not yet dead and buried.

Two weeks before Ravid published his scoop, a senior security figure met with President Reuven Rivlin, who was scheduled to meet with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden a few days later, during the latter’s visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah. The security figure told Rivlin about the Israeli initiative, which had been conveyed to the other side. The Palestinians overall treated it favorably, he said, but Abbas’ response was, unfortunately, negative.

The security figure told Rivlin that the Israeli defense establishment wondered – some would say suspected – if Abbas said no at the behest of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, because President Barack Obama is going to launch his own initiative. When you meet with Biden, the security figure said to Rivlin, tell him it’s too bad Abbas rejected the plan, because it’s good for both sides, and ask him to ask Abbas why he turned it down.

Rivlin duly asked Biden, when they met on March 9, to ask Abbas whether Kerry was behind his refusal to adopt the initiative.

Three weeks after the Biden meeting, Rivlin’s office hasn’t yet received an answer. Israel is left with the question, the suspicion and a promising initiative that is still pending.

Out of the loop

Israel’s former ambassador to Washington, MK Michael Oren (Kulanu), returned this week from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, where Republican presidential contender Donald Trump delivered a pro-Israel speech. Oren was stunned. People he knows personally, who came into the hall determined to cold-shoulder Trump, gave him repeated standing ovations. He worked the crowd like a skilled puppeteer.

During the period between the U.S. election and the change of guard on January 20, 2017, Obama will be a lame duck domestically – but a swan internationally. The president will be free of electoral considerations. He can launch his own private Middle East initiative or decide not to veto a French initiative in the UN Security Council, or to leave behind an “Obama legacy” that would probably not be welcomed by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Oren thinks Israel should act to preempt this blow. His criticism is directed not only at Netanyahu but at the leader of his party, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, for neglecting the diplomatic arena. “A freeze in the diplomatic channel will lead to a security deterioration and the undermining of our international standing – and that will have severe repercussions on the economy,” Oren told me this week.

That was his reason for entering politics – the “diplomatic arena.” Netanyahu wanted him in Likud, but Oren chose a more moderate party. He wrote Kulanu’s policy platform, which supports a settlement freeze outside the agreed blocs. He has yet to hear Kahlon refer to the issue. “Look at MK Yair Lapid,” he says, referring to the leader of Yesh Atid. “He’s working smart. Kahlon should do more, not just deal with housing and the banks. He should urge the prime minister to take a diplomatic initiative.”

Oren believes Netanyahu’s refusal to conclude the security-aid deal with the current U.S. administration is a mistake. So was Netanyahu’s cancellation of his scheduled meeting with Obama last month. “In times like these, it’s best to be more flexible, not confrontational,” he says.

It bothers him that the Finance Ministry is not involved in the U.S.-Israel talks about the amount of aid. How can the treasury not want to have input here? Why doesn’t the finance minister insist on being part of the loop? Oren can’t understand it. Maybe he’s in the wrong place.

No respect

On Sunday evening, when the High Court of Justice was about to issue its ruling on the natural-gas deal, the security cabinet was in the sealed conference room in the Prime Minister’s Office. Their smartphones were outside. All the smarts were inside.

National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz entered – pale, according to one participant. He mumbled something incomprehensible. “It can’t be,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s just unbelievable.” What happened, the worried ministers wanted to know. Finally Steinitz got his act together and reported on the court’s ruling.

“Listening to him, we thought the court had overturned the whole deal from start to finish,” one minister said. “Afterward, we realized it wasn’t all that bad. A formula will be found.” After the meeting, Netanyahu asked Construction Minister Yoav Galant – one of the two ministers who have disqualified themselves from voting on the gas issue due to ostensible conflicts of interest – to reconsider and vote for the legislation in the Knesset. The Kulanu MK wouldn’t hear of it.

Netanyahu then called the other conflicted minister, Haim Katz (Likud). He demanded that the social affairs minister resign from the Knesset so that the next in line, Yehudah Glick – an avid Temple Mount loyalist – can enter the House and vote in favor. Katz refused. He fought hard for his Knesset seat and doesn’t owe it to anyone.

Not for the first time, Netanyahu is learning the hard way that his ministers couldn’t care less about his distresses. He can ask, implore and cite national, Zionist or historic reasons. They won’t lift a finger to help him. They don’t especially respect him or like him, and none of them will rush to throw himself on the wire for him. Netanyahu wants to get the gas out of the ground? That’s his problem.