Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon appeared to move past a dust-up over controversial comments made by a top general and the resulting firestorm, releasing a laconic joint statement after a high-tension meeting Monday morning.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon met this morning and clarified the matter,” read the statement, put out jointly by the Prime Minister’s Office and Ya’alon’s office. “There is no dispute, nor was there ever, as to the army being subordinate to the political echelon, and officers are free to express their views in relevant forums.”
The statement ended there, and spokespeople declined to comment further.
The statement came after Netanyahu and Ya’alon met in Jerusalem following a verbal scuffle late Sunday over Ya’alon’s backing for IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen Yair Golan, who has been criticized the prime minister and other politicians for appearing to liken certain segments of Israeli society with pre-World War II Germany.
At a speech Sunday evening before the IDF’s top brass, the defense minister urged army officers to speak their minds and ignore “political winds.” Officers should be “courageous not only on the battlefield,” Ya’alon said, “but also in the briefing room” when they believe the army or government were not taking into account the ethical ramifications of a decision.
Netanyahu declared the Golan affair behind him last week, but on Sunday night summoned Ya’alon following his speech.
“We thought this issue was closed last week. The prime minister wants to know why it was so critical for Ya’alon to reopen it now,” a Prime Minister’s Office official said.
The Monday morning conversation was not a “reprimand,” the official explained, but only a “clarification.”
Netanyahu seemed to understand Ya’alon’s comments as implying that uniformed officers were duty-bound to publicly challenge and second-guess the decisions of politicians.
Ya’alon, who hails from Netanyahu’s Likud party, also took flak from other Likud ministers on Monday over his speech.
“The state controls the army and not the other way around,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio Monday morning. “In any well-run democracy, army officers, like police officers, do not speak their minds and do not criticize the parliament.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev accused Ya’alon of being confused, drawing charges from sources close to Ya’alon that she was a populist, Channel 10 news reported.
In the Sunday night speech, Ya’alon also doubled down on his support for the army amid an ongoing public row over the manslaughter indictment of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who killed a disarmed Palestinian stabber in Hebron in March.
“In recent months, we found ourselves fighting against an extremist minority, working in the field and on social media. Some have infiltrated mainstream [Israeli] society, clandestinely and in disguise, and are trying to influence the image and values of the IDF,” Ya’alon said in the address at the Defense Ministry’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The issue is not one of “right or left,” the defense minister continued. The army will not allow “trigger-happy [soldiers], revenge, or the loss of self-control,” he said.
Turning to the IDF’s top generals, he instructed them: “Do not fear, do not hesitate, do not be deterred. Be courageous not only on the battlefield, but also in the briefing room. A good army is an army whose officers, junior and senior alike, feel safe in their ability to speak their minds at all times with the knowledge that they won’t be hurt,” he continued.
“Keep acting in accordance with your humane conscience and moral compass, and not according to which way the winds are blowing,” he added.
A late-Sunday statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu gives “full backing” to the IDF, but reiterated that Golan’s original comments about pre-WWII Germany, made during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, were “inappropriate.”
The prime minister “firmly believes that the comparison to Nazi Germany was an inappropriate statement, made at an inappropriate time, and caused Israel damage in the international arena,” it read.
“IDF officers express their opinions freely, in the relevant forums and on the issues that are under their jurisdiction,” the statement said. “The IDF is the people’s army and must remain separate from political debates.”
Shortly after his speech, which drew harsh responses from politicians, Golan clarified that he never intended to compare Israel to pre-war Germany.
The debate over the army’s values has dominated the public debate following Azaria’s indictment and Golan’s criticism of Israeli society.
Ya’alon’s remarks were praised by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid on Sunday.
“[Ya’alon] is right. the IDF is the most moral army in the world, but only because it engages in continuous, open and courageous discussion about its values and the dilemmas it faces,” he wrote on Facebook.
“Officers may make mistakes sometimes, but thinking officers who make mistakes are preferable to officers who don’t ask themselves questions about values,” Lapid added.
Kulanu MK Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, also backed Ya’alon, and said the “separation between the civil leadership and the military in Israel is one of the basic tenets of its democracy and it must be protected.”
Last Wednesday, Israel’s Memorial Day, Ya’alon said soldiers must show restraint, uphold their values, and not “lose their heads” even in the heat of fighting. “Even in the difficult moments, when your blood boils and the rage is great, woe to us if we lose our way and our values,” Ya’alon said at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv. Ya’alon cautioned that excessive force was liable to lead Israel to “the abyss.”