The Israeli Tragedy of Spring 2016

The moment the video of the execution in Hebron surfaced, the process of deposing Moshe Ya’alon and replacing him with Avigdor Lieberman was set in motion.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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A supporter of Elor Azaria holds a sign during a protest calling for his release in Tel Aviv, April 19, 2016.
A supporter of Elor Azaria holds a sign during a protest calling for his release in Tel Aviv, April 19, 2016. Credit: Baz Ratner, Reuters
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

The dynamite that blew up the Netanyahu-Ya’alon government was the execution video clip from Hebron. Once it surfaced, the army brass and the senior politicians had to take a stand: Was Elor Azaria, the soldier who killed a badly wounded, prone Palestinian assailant, a criminal or a saint? Does he deserve to go to prison or get a medal? The prime minister sided with the soldier, the defense minister with the soldier’s commanders. At that moment, the process of deposing Moshe Ya’alon and replacing him with Avigdor Lieberman was set in motion.

It’s doubtful the B’Tselem activists who disseminated the video clip imagined this would be the consequence. But like the heroes of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, their passion led them to disaster. There’s no question that exposing that execution was the greatest professional accomplishment ever by human rights groups in the occupied territories. However, instead of it encouraging greater enforcement of the laws of war in the territories, the disciplining of soldiers for “exceptional” acts and the restraining of fingers on the trigger, the opposite now will happen. With Lieberman in the Defense Ministry, gun safeties will be set on “fire,” and many more of these kind of videos will emerge.

It wasn’t only B’tselem that behaved like a tragic hero in this crisis. So did Ya’alon, who went all the way with his self-image and public standing as guardian of justice and morality. The role of a defense minister is to ensure the political echelon’s control over the army, and be a scapegoat for wars and terror attacks. Ya’alon did the opposite. Instead of taking the prime minister’s cue and toeing the line, he invigorated the spirit of rebellion in the army. And if, in the Azaria affair, his standing up for the rules of engagement and the authority of commanders could be justified and smoothed over, his support of the deputy chief of staff against Netanyahu and the right-wing ministers was unforgivable. Yair Golan’s speech, on Israel today and Germany in the past, did not comply with any order or operational necessity. As soon as Ya’alon backed Golan, he signed the order for his own transfer out of the Defense Ministry.

The third tragic figure in this saga is, of course, Isaac Herzog, who made global efforts for the purpose of being appointed Netanyahu’s international spokesman. He dreamed of mingling with world leaders and holding forth on matters of high politics, even showing considerable diplomatic skills in his negotiations with Netanyahu, harnessing the presidents of France and Egypt to his cause. But Herzog, too, sought honors and came away with a fiasco. It’s not just that his credibility has evaporated and his career come to an end; that’s no great loss. It’s just a shame that he handed a domestic and overseas kashrut certificate to the right-wing government by agreeing to adopt its principles (there’s no realistic chance for a Palestinian state, and we shouldn’t be seen as “Arab-lovers”).

The next hero, the most important one of all, is the prime minister. Netanyahu supposedly emerged from this crisis the winner. He wanted to expand his coalition and he succeeded. Soon the two-year budget will pass and peace will return to Balfour Street until 2019. But that’s just it – it won’t. Instead of enjoying the services of a PR man and polished attorney like Herzog, who only wanted a ministerial bureau, flight tickets and some noncommittal mumbling about the peace process, from now on Netanyahu will be dominated by two contenders for his chair, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett. He wanted more power and ended up weakened. The negotiations with Herzog showed that Netanyahu cannot make any diplomatic move in Likud. From now on his role in the national leadership will be to minimize the catastrophes cooked up by Bennett and Lieberman.

And finally, the big winner, Lieberman, who waited a year outside the government at the head of a small faction without influence, and now has received the upgrade of a lifetime. His strong nerves paid off when he passed up the temptation of staying on as foreign minister after six empty years in that post. He escaped any responsibility for the “lone-wolf” intifada, which will now be dumped on the deposed Ya’alon. But Lieberman is a tragic hero, too – only this time the tragedy is ours.

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