Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, on Sunday deflected mounting criticism of statements he had made to the effect that, as a soldier, he would not carry out an order to evict Jewish settlers from their homes.
Speaking at a debate at Tel Aviv University, in response to a direct question from the moderator, Nissim Mishal — whose Channel 2 interview show last Thursday was the venue for Bennett’s contentious statements — Bennett said that he was opposed to insubordination in the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces.
“I know that hundreds of thousands of young people and soldiers look at us to set a personal example,” Bennett said Sunday. “I want to state unequivocally: An order to evacuate an Arab village or a Jewish village by government directive is terrible, but disobeying it would clash with another value — obeying the law.”
Bennett, a reserves officer, said that in such an “unbearable clash between these values,” soldiers, “even me, Major Naftali Bennet,” must obey orders, “because we have only one IDF, and if everyone does what they want, we won’t have an IDF and we won’t have a state.”
“I don’t think I can be any clearer than I was now,” he concluded.
Since Thursday night, when he stated that he would opt for unobtrusive conscientious objection and go to jail if necessary rather than participate in the evacuation of Jewish settlers, Bennett has been at the center of a political firestorm.
Most notable among his many detractors was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the comments “very grave” and said that “there will be no room in my cabinet for anyone who supports insubordination.”
Bennett’s skyrocketing electoral popularity — fueled by charisma and a dearth of parties on the right — is widely perceived as a threat to Netanyahu and his Likud-Yisrael Beytenu joint list. The relationship between the two men is further complicated by the fact that Bennett was Netanyahu’s chief of staff between 2006 and 2008, and stepped down after the two reportedly had a falling out.
In 2010, he began a two-year stint as head of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of West Bank settlements, in which position he clashed with Netanyahu over the prime minister’s initiative to freeze settlement construction.
On Sunday, Bennett lashed out at an anonymous ad campaign that cropped up in many of Israel’s Hebrew dailies, claiming the Likud was behind it. The ad features his image with the words “Bennett is irresponsible; he supports insubordination,” along with a quote from his Thursday interview: “Conscientious objection is an intrinsic part of being a soldier.”
“It’s hard for me to wake up in the morning and see my face splashed across a mysterious, anonymous campaign, which I know they [Likud] are sponsoring,” Bennett told students during a campaign stop at the Hakfar Hayarok high school. “If they want to smear me they should man up and put their name on the campaign.”
“I call upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to not divide the nation and the army for the sake of a third of a [Knesset] seat,” Bennett said. “Stop this onslaught [which you've launched] like someone who’s found a great treasure. Maybe it’s the result of instructions from a strategy analyst, but it’s ripping Israeli society apart.”
It was later confirmed that the Likud was indeed behind the ad.