Outgoing IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan defended a controversial speech he gave last year in which he compared trends in Israeli society to those of pre-World War II Germany, in a Hebrew-language interview with the military’s website published on Monday.
The major general’s speech, delivered at the national Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in 2016, sparked a flurry of denouncements, as well as statements of support, from Israeli politicians and public figures.
A difference of opinion between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon over the remarks was seen by many as a contributing factor to the latter’s eventual ousting from his position a few weeks later.
Golan, speaking in a new video interview produced by the military, said he “didn’t realize it would go to the very political place that it went,” but added that he “doesn’t take back the remarks.”
At an official ceremony in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the major general had said that “if there is something that frightens me in the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying horrifying processes that occurred in Europe…70, 80 and 90 years ago and finding evidence of their existence here in our midst, today, in 2016.”
While his critique of Israeli society was likely aimed at support for Jewish extremist actions, Golan specifically touched upon the issue of moral flaws within the army, saying the strength of the IDF was its ability to thoroughly investigate and punish wrongdoers “and take responsibility for the good and the bad” without justifying their actions or attempting to cover them up. The speech came amid handwringing over the case of Elor Azaria, who shot and killed a wounded and disarmed Palestinian assailant in Hebron months earlier.
Golan, who was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi as deputy chief of staff in May, defended his comments in the interview Monday, saying Israel — “as a light unto the nations” — has a responsibility to maintain “moral superiority.”
He said the test of that morality is not in comparison to other countries, but how Israel stands up to its own stated values.
“Morality is you compared to you. You compared to your standards, not to those around you. Around [Israel], there are murderous people who don’t hesitate to kill one another in fear-inducing quantities. That should give us no repose,” he said.
“On this issue, we shouldn’t cut ourselves any slack,” Golan added.
The major general said he was surprised by the controversy surrounding his comments.
“I thought I was saying things that were clear, that every reasonable person would say, ‘Hey, he said what had to be said.’ I didn’t think I was saying something that was blatantly controversial. I was mistaken. I admit the mistake,” he said.
Eloquent in both Hebrew and English, Golan holds a master’s degree from Harvard University. He was wounded but continued to command during a shootout with Hezbollah fighters in 1997 and is a well-regarded officer in the IDF, holding a number of top positions in his 37-year career.
Golan joined the Paratroopers Brigade in 1980, serving as both a combat soldier and officer in the unit. In the 1990s, he was sent back to the IDF’s officers school to command a battalion there before moving to fill a variety of senior positions in the IDF, including head of the Nahal Brigade, head of the West Bank Division during the tail end of the Second Intifada, head of the Home Front Command and head of the Northern Command, before taking over as deputy chief of staff in December 2014.
During his interview with the military website, the outgoing general lauded the IDF’s multi-year Gideon Plan, which is meant to streamline the IDF.
According to Golan, the new policies and programs in the Gideon Plan are designed to ensure the combat-readiness of IDF troops, which was criticized in the past two large military campaigns — the 2006 Second Lebanon War and 2014’s Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
“The Second Lebanon War and the way we went into Protective Edge, after the halting of exercises in May 2014 — that won’t happen again,” Golan said.
“Gaps in preparedness and fitness in the IDF will not exist again,” he repeated.
Speaking about Israel’s security situation in general, Golan noted that Israel has found itself in a “rare position of quiet.”
“We’re used to thinking that this is the most combative place in the world. Israel is truly in the eye of the storm, and the eye of the storm is where the air stands still,” he said.
The general warned strongly against the threat from Iran, which he said was unlike any other country Israel has faced before, as the Islamic Republic is gathering together forces from across the region to do battle with Israel.
Golan noted a certain similarity between the Iranians and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in the leadup to the 1967 Six Day War, but noted there was a difference in that “Nasser mostly spoke, and didn’t do as much, while the Iranians are mostly doing — and also speaking.”