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In Campaign Against Rival Gantz, Netanyahu Sends Worrying Message to the Army

Netanyahu promoted a paid social media post falsely claiming that Gantz once left a border policeman 'to die.' Should the current commander of the West Bank forces now conclude that the government won't back him up?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Benjamin Netanyahu with then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and then-military chief Benny Gantz, August 27, 2014.
Benjamin Netanyahu with then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and then-military chief Benny Gantz, August 27, 2014. Credit: Thomas Coex / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Somebody at the Likud party’s campaign headquarters is evidently much more worried than he’s willing to admit about Benny Gantz’s popularity in the polls. That’s the obvious conclusion from the aggressive campaign being waged against the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.

Still, it’s a bit surprising to discover that even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wallowing in this mire. On Monday, he began promoting a paid social media post that falsely claimed that “Benny Gantz left Madhat Yusuf to die.”

Yusuf was one of the border policemen besieged by Palestinians at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus in October 2000, at the start of the second intifada. He died of his wounds when the army delayed a rescue operation. Gantz was then commander of the IDF forces in the West Bank.

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Netanyahu is no stranger to crude accusations, from his claim that leftists “have forgotten what it is to be Jewish” (1997) to “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves” (Election Day 2015). But even compared to those remarks, the current post scrapes the bottom of the barrel.

The post may have been written by some student, or perhaps by Netanyahu’s beloved son. But at the least, Netanyahu bears overall responsibility for what’s published in his name on his official social media accounts. The story screams a loss of control and prompts speculation that maybe Netanyahu knows something we don’t about either polling data or developments on the legal front.

Attacks on Gantz over Yusuf were previously the province of Likud ministers and backbenchers, but they’re now being made openly by the prime minister himself. Regardless of the content of these accusations, it’s outrageous that Netanyahu, who has been prime minister (with a break) for almost 13 years now and is currently defense minister, is so quick to shift the blame to army officers.

What kind of message is he sending to the current commander of the West Bank forces, Brig. Gen. Eran Niv? Should Niv conclude that if something goes wrong, he’ll be left alone because the government won’t back him up?

Gantz, as I have repeatedly noted in recent weeks, wasn’t alone at the command post overlooking Joseph’s Tomb. The chain of command above him included then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was also defense minister; then-Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz; the head of Central Command at the time, Yitzhak Eitan; and senior officials in the Shin Bet security service, most of whom were there at the scene.

One can argue that Gantz showed insufficient initiative by not rescuing the besieged policemen and instead relying, as his superiors did, on what proved to be false Palestinian promises that the Palestinian police would intervene to end the siege. But this was a collective error, not Gantz’s alone.

The claim that Yusuf was deliberately left to bleed to death is also debatable. Yusuf’s family has every reason to be furious at the state and the army, including Gantz. But the exploitation of this anger for political purposes, while ignoring the chain of command and completely abandoning the mutual responsibility between the government and the army, should worry every army officer and every Israeli. Even after the election, which the polls predict Netanyahu will win, there will still be a state to run and an army that must carry out orders.

Yusuf was killed about a week after the intifada began. Brig. Gen. Yaakov Zigdon, who then headed Central Command headquarters and was with IDF chief Mofaz during the incident, later wrote in the army magazine Bamahane that during the intifada’s early days, two months after the failure of the Camp David Summit, “there was still a feeling that the sides were moving toward a diplomatic agreement.” Given what was known then, he said, the decision to rely on the Palestinians to rescue the policemen was “reasonable, correct and wise.”

The incident outraged many soldiers even at the time, and Zigdon acknowledged that the high command didn’t properly explain its decision. Relying on the Palestinians proved to be a mistake, but it stemmed from a failure to understand that the bilateral relationship had changed – that peace talks had given way to war.

Yes, the government and the army brass could have explained themselves better to the public and admitted their mistake much earlier. But that’s a far cry from deliberately leaving a wounded soldier to die.

As Haaretz’s Yaniv Kubovich has reported, Netanyahu himself rejected the accusations against Gantz over this incident back in 2011, after the Yusuf family protested his decision to appoint Gantz chief of staff.

Incidentally, another senior Likud figure should also be familiar with the details of the incident. Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Gallant, now immigrant absorption minister, was a member of the military panel that investigated the Joseph’s Tomb incident back in 2000. It found no evidence that Yusuf was intentionally left to die.

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