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The last few weeks have been uncertain for Israel’s government, as opposition leader Isaac Herzog flirted with the idea of entering into Netanyahu’s coalition. In a surprise move, Netanyahu looks to have instead chosen Avigdor Lieberman, head of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteynu. While there are numerous underlying dynamics behind the politics of this latest shift, its implications for the growing rift between Netanyahu and the security establishment stand out.
That rift was exposed most recently in the spat between Netanyahu and former Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, over the core values of the IDF. Today, Ya’alon reigned, citing strong “moral and professional” disagreements with Netanyahu and ministers in his government.
These disagreements have played two major debates between the two camps — Ya’alon and the military against Netanyahu and the far-right. One has been over the IDF’s own code of ethics and how it applies to supposed Palestinian assailants. This argument boiled over in the midst of the killing of a subdued Palestinian attacker.
The incident spurred a debate over the IDF’s code of ethics, which prohibits the killing of unarmed people. Ya’alon emerged as a staunch defender of that code arguing that people who “back the soldier don’t back our laws and values, while Netanyahu seemed to move back and forth on his response. The public debate that followed turned into a battle about the importance of the IDF’s values to Israeli society.
The second incident occurred earlier this month, when Yair Golan, the IDF’s deputy chief of staff, came under fire for drawing comparisons between Israel and 1930s Germany. His comments generated a firestorm, which in turn morphed into a debate about whether generals should be able to express their disagreement with the government. Ya’alon has sided with the military, their code of ethics and their right to express themselves, and Netanyahu has sided against Ya’alon and with the far-right.
These incidents set the stage for the dramatic showdown between Netanyahu and Ya’alon, representing the reactionary right and the military leadership, respectively. The IDF, with its understanding of Israel’s agency in its conduct with the Palestinians, has become a proxy for Israel’s moral fibre and tolerance for dissent. That makes it a target for Netanyahu and extreme elements of his government.
In response to Lieberman’s appointment, Ha’aretz Anshel Pfeffer wrote a compelling piece arguing that Netanyahu is “using Lieberman’s appointment to break Israel’s oldest elite: the military:”
The open conflict between Netanyahu and the IDF’s General Staff, over questions of morals and values in Israel’s struggle against Palestinian violence, put him on a collision course with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon who firmly backed his generals. Netanyahu’s plan was to use his new coalition deal with the Zionist Union to put the frank defense minister in his place and to show the senior officers who’s the boss.
In all his governments, Netanyahu clashed with the security establishment. He demanded they change their tune back in the late 1990s, when he wanted them to abandon the Oslo framework. After he came back to power in 2009, they enraged him by opposing his plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations. This time, he has no intention of backing down.
Ya’alon was no less harsh, stating that he is “surprised” by Israel’s “loss of moral compass on basic questions.” He also said that “we need to steer the country in accordance with one’s conscience and not whichever way the wind is blowing.” Upon his resignation, he went even further, saying that:
“…to my great sorrow, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud Party and are shaking the foundations and threatening to hurt its residents.”
“Sadly, senior politicians in the country have chosen the way of incitement and segregation of parts of Israeli society instead of unifying it and bringing it together. It is unbearable to me that we will be divided among us out of cynicism and lust for control, and I expressed my opinion on the matter more than once out of honest concern for the future of society in Israel and the future of the next generations.”
Ya’alon opposes a two-state solution, and has called for segregating busses between Israelis and Palestinians, but he seems to understand Israel’s current moral and political crisis. He joins other prominent members of the security establishment in criticizing the direction of Netanyahu’s government. Many these figures, including IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. General Gadi Eiezenkot and Chief of Military Intelligence, Major General Herzl Halevi, recognize that Netanyahu’s policies in the West Bank are making things worse. They understand the despair created by the occupation and lack of a political horizon only inflame tensions and worsen Israel’s security.
In that sense, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the IDF’s core values and belief that the government’s current policies to not advance a diplomatic horizon, is now in Netanyahu’s crosshairs. This latest row will no doubt deepen the rift between Israel’s government and military leadership. But the IDF is a deeply revered institution in Israeli society. While Netanyahu has taken on elements of Israel’s establishment in the past, Ya’alon and Israel’s military leadership have given every indication that they are not backing down from this fight.
Benjy Cannon is the 2015-2016 Mikva Fellow at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @benjycannon