Naftali Bennett, the charismatic up-and-coming leader of the hardline Jewish Home party, has come under fire for a statement he made during an interview Thursday night to the effect that, if commanded to participate in the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he would opt for the path of conscientious objection.
“If I am ever given an order to evacuate a Jew from his home… personally, my conscience won’t allow me to do it; I’ll ask my commander to grant me an exemption, [but] I won’t call for [mass] insubordination,” Bennett said during a heated conversation with Channel 2 interviewer Nissim Mishal (a full video of the Hebrew interview can be found here).
Further pressed about the values he instilled in his soldiers as an officer in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, Bennett said: “I taught them that a command that’s topped by a black flag should not be carried out.” The “black flag” terminology refers to the IDF ethos that an order that is patently illegal must not be obeyed.
“To kick people off of this land is a terrible thing; I’ll do whatever it takes to prevent it from happening again,” Bennett stressed, alluding to Israel’s unilateral 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and removal of four settlements in the northern West Bank, during which thousands of Israeli settlers were evacuated from their homes.
“I’ve been a soldier for 22 years, I led soldiers into battle…. Don’t lecture me about what I can and can’t do,” said Bennett, who still serves as a major in the IDF reserves. “Conscientious objection is an intrinsic part of being a soldier.”
Still, he continued, the Jewish Home party, which, he stressed, was full of former officers in elite infantry units, “will accept the will of the politicians…. We’ll consult with rabbis, but we’ll make our decisions in the political realm.”
The indignant reactions weren’t long in coming.
“I’m shocked that Bennett would call for insubordination [in the army's ranks],” said Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), a former chief of the General Staff who serves as minister of strategic affairs in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. “The State of Israel’s existence is predicated on the IDF, and the IDF’s existence is predicated on obeying orders. Anyone who calls for insubordination is irresponsible, and erodes the basic values of the Jewish state.”
Knesset Member Eitan Cabel of the Labor Party claimed Bennett had diverged from acceptable political discourse.
His “was a lamentable and unacceptable statement — even during election season,” charged Cabel, who heads Labor’s response team. “Regardless of right- and left-wing politics, to disobey orders crosses a red line and impairs our ability to function as a society. Coming from people in leadership positions, statements in support of such behavior are dire and entirely illegitimate.”
The Kadima party called Bennett “no more than the shepherd of the [settler extremist] hilltop youth” and stated that, with his statements about insubordination, the Jewish Home chairman had “shown his true face.”
Throughout Thursday’s interview, a visibly hostile Mishal needled Bennett with questions regarding his relationship with Netanyahu, at one point prefacing a query with the assertion “You don’t like Arabs,” and even betting Bennett a falafel that Netanyahu wouldn’t appoint him a minister if he wins the January 22 elections.
Bennett was Netanyahu’s chief of staff between 2006 and 2008, and stepped down after the two 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 Thursday, Bennett insisted that there was no bad blood between him and his former boss, and that the two would work together after the elections.
Polls published on Wednesday and Thursday by Channel 2 and Israel Radio showed the Jewish Home heading for 12 and 11 seats, respectively — results which could make it the third-largest party in the Knesset, and, for Netanyahu, a force to be reckoned with.
On Friday morning, Bennett clarified his statements on his Facebook page in what he termed a “special message to young people who face induction and IDF combat soldiers.”
“I’m opposed to insubordination,” Bennett wrote. “I think it’s a terrible mistake to use IDF combat soldiers to kick families out of their homes…. I was asked what I would do, personally…. My response: I’d approach my commanders unobtrusively and ask them to exempt me from doing it,” he said, noting that during the disengagement, there were dozens of soldiers who did just that.
“Nothing is worse to me than jeopardizing the IDF,” he concluded. “That’s why, my young brothers and sisters, it’s wrong to disobey orders.”