Opinion |

The Bennett Phone Call That Should Not Have Happened

Ehud Olmert
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Naftali Bennett arrives at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, earlier this month.
Naftali Bennett arrives at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, earlier this month.Credit: Emil Salman
Ehud Olmert

The phone conversation between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the father of soldier Barel Hadarya Shmueli continues to reverberate, becoming a topic of articles, disputes, criticism, words of consolation and compassion, and even a sort of eulogy for a soldier fighting for his life.

The mistake made by the prime minister, confusing the names of the father and son, is regrettable. A more effective preparation for the conversation, an orderly note with all the details checked beforehand by his aides, would have prevented the ensuing embarrassment.

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But throughout the management of the incident, this was the most human and forgivable of errors, unpleasant but not malicious, dismissive or hurtful. It was embarrassing, a shame that he got it wrong, and nothing more. Passing the recording to those who would politicize the incident to harm the prime minister was malicious. As others have written, the ability to record the conversation, document the family’s harsh criticism and see to it that it becomes part of a public campaign, evokes serious questions about who is responsible.

That former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is currently far, far away in the quiet of the Pacific, vacationing with his family on a private island owned by Larry Ellison – seized upon the incident is no surprise. As prime minister, Netanyahu never missed an opportunity to exploit an incident – even ones involving death or bereavement – to trash his opponents or exalt his own image.

The incessant mentions of his brother Yoni, an Israeli hero who died in the Entebbe operation, has long marked his lack of restraint in repulsively exploiting national symbols or personal tragedies that belong to intimate family settings and using them as part of his PR campaign. This is nothing new. We weren’t surprised.

I believe it would have been better if the phone call between Prime Minister Bennett and the soldier’s family had never taken place, regardless of what happened afterwards. It is customary in our positions, justifiably, to express the sense of identification that decision makers at the highest levels of government share with the families of fallen and wounded soldiers. The late President Ezer Weizman was in the habit of visiting every family who lost a service member in Israel’s defense establishment. The gesture was encouraging and endearing and undoubtedly contributed to the natural public solidarity regarding the pain and suffering of bereaved families.

Presidents who succeeded Weizman followed suit. Prime ministers, including myself, have met with many bereaved families, as well as families of soldiers who were wounded during operations conducted in defense of the state. Such meetings are difficult and often agonizing, not just for the families, but for those who come to console and support them.

As someone who has taken part in such occasions, I can testify that harsh words are often spoken. Emotions boil over, criticism is heard, tears flow. It is not an easy experience for bereaved families or those close to the fallen or wounded. It is also difficult for those coming to offer their condolences. Presidents and prime ministers are also swept up in the storm of pain, loss and the desire to envelop the grieving family with love.

21-year-old Staff Sgt. Barel Haredia Shmueli who was critically wounded during the violent clashes on Saturday. Credit: Israel Police Spokesperson's Unit

These are not the reasons why leaders rush to call a family mere hours after an incident that ended in a grave injury, while the soldier is fighting for his life in the hospital and his shocked family sits by his bedside, scared and possibly very angry. It seems to me that the impulse to express condolences immediately and signal to the public that the decision makers recognize the weight of their decisions, disrupts the sense of propriety regarding what needs to be done, when and how.

Israel’s defense forces are deployed along all its borders and in the West Bank along a front that's too broad. Nearly every day there are violent confrontations with terrorists and ill-wishers along our southern and northern borders. A soldier’s role is to be alert while on duty and carry out their missions, with a risk of injury, sometimes serious and sometimes death.

Last week there were several such incidents. Whom does the prime minister call? Who does the chief of staff visit? Who becomes a topic of public debate? Not everyone. How do you choose who to call and who not to? When do you talk to the parents or brothers, and when is it enough to receive information through the usual channels in our defense establishment, postponing the act of expressing public solidarity to a later date?

It seems to me that in recent years our judgement has erred regarding what is seemly, proper and how those in senior positions should conduct themselves. The army, security service and police combat units were supposed to be exactly where Barel Hadarya Shmueli was. They are there as part of their mission, duty, and role. They are there with the clear knowledge that this is not a game, and that it sometimes ends tragically. There is no one who does not ache and identify with the deep pain of what happened to Shmueli. With great caution, I must say that sometimes there is no way of preventing such an outcome, even if it is agonizing. But it is inappropriate that such an incident disrupt the most senior civilian and military echelons. All this without acknowledging the way an innocent phone call by the prime minister was cynically exploited with the intention of hurting his image, turning a display of humanity to an insulting and coarse political campaign.

A leader’s feeling that he must immediately reach out to a family after an incident symbolizes a certain change in societal priorities. How many phone calls have been made to families of civilians who were hurt in terror attacks? There have been many such victims: Young and old, police officers and Border Police members, and, of course, soldiers. The question, again, is who do you call? Who don’t you call? Why is one case chosen over another? Why should a wounded soldier evoke a prime minister’s immediate interest that much more than a wounded civilian? After all, the civilian is meant to be protected by the soldier. Does a tragedy that befalls a civilian or his family have lower priority in our value system?

I think we’ve gotten a bit confused.

The role of a soldier is to fight, and the role of a leader is to make decisions. As part of his role, a leader may feel solidarity that he feels obliged to express, and in expressing it, gives voice to the pain and gratitude of all citizens for those who defend their lives. I am unconvinced that this expression should be a form of public relations.

The prime minister’s phone conversation should have been conducted differently, at a different time, and with all the restraint that was missing, both on the part of the caller and on the part of the family he called.

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