Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday dismissed a new campaign to have Maj. Gen. Yair Golan removed from the list of candidates for the position of IDF chief of staff over past controversial remarks, saying the petition will not affect his decision.
The Israel Defense Forces also came out with its own statement of support for Golan — a highly irregular move — saying his “contribution to the security of Israel is great.”
In his tweet, the defense minister praised the general, saying he is “an excellent officer and a courageous commander who dedicated his life to the security of the State of Israel.”
“The smear campaign being run against him in recent days is inappropriate and it will not influence the chief of staff selection process,” Liberman wrote on Monday morning.
Golan is one of four candidates to succeed IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, whose term is due to end at the end of this year.
On Sunday, a group of over 100 families of fallen soldiers submitted a petition to Liberman calling for Golan, a former deputy chief of staff, not to be considered for the top military position over comments he made in 2016 that were seen as comparing trends in Israel to pre-World War II Germany, as well as remarks he made in 2006 while commander of the army’s West Bank division calling for soldiers to to take risks in order to protect Palestinian civilians.
“A worrying picture emerges from these statements of a commander who is prepared to take unnecessary risks with the lives of his soldiers,” the letter said of Golan. “As bereaved parents, siblings and spouses these quotes very much concern us. A man who thinks the blood of our children is cheap cannot protect or command them.”
The military’s statement noted Golan’s storied history in the IDF and directly refuted the claims made in the letter that he may hesitate to fight terror or put soldiers lives at risk.
“Maj. Gen. Yair Golan has served in the IDF for 38 years in every field of battle, and his contribution to the security of Israel is great,” the army wrote in a tweet.
“Presenting Maj. Gen. Golan as though he didn’t take action or won’t take action against terrorists does not match reality. Any attempt to sully the good name of an IDF commander and his operational contributions is unacceptable,” the IDF said.
The campaign, which is being run by the right-wing Im Tirzu organization, was announced on the Hadashot news nightly TV broadcast on Sunday. Since it was announced, Golan has received an outpouring of support, mostly from former IDF officers who served alongside him, in addition to the defense minister.
“The journey of incitement and smears against Maj. Gen. Yair Golan is revolting and must end. Yair Golan is a courageous officer and an extraordinary commander, who was seriously wounded in a fight with terrorists in Lebanon,” wrote Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon on his Twitter account.
Tibon, who also faced criticism from right-wing groups over his command of the West Bank in the mid-2000s, was referring to a shootout between IDF soldiers and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon in 1997, in which Golan was injured but continued to command his troops.
Golan also received support from Lt. Col. (res.) Shalom Eisner, an IDF officer perhaps best known for a filmed altercation he had with a Danish pro-Palestinian activist in 2012, in which he struck the man in the face with his M-16 assault rifle.
Writing in a public Facebook post, Eisner said he generally supports the nationalist Im Tirzu group, but that this campaign against Golan was a mistake.
“Shock and a sharp pain hit me tonight when I saw the letter against Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, a top commander with a courageous heart, a straight-shooter who has worked his entire life for the security of the nation and the country, who has put his life on the line more than once to defend our lives and the lives of his soldiers. How can it be claimed that he isn’t worthy?” he wrote on Sunday night.
“Im Tirzu (who in my opinion has much in its favor), this time you are making a big mistake,” said Eisner, who received support from right-wing groups and denouncements from the left over the 2012 incident.
Eisner and others also took issue with the “use” of families of fallen soldiers in the campaign, given their sensitive position in Israeli society.
“Bereaved families, who are very dear to us, is it possible that they are using you?” Eisner wrote.
Former IDF spokesperson Avi Benayahu similarly denounced this aspect of the campaign.
“Regardless of who will be appointed the next IDF chief, the political hazing they are doing to Maj. Gen. Yair Golan is ugly and dangerous, especially the use of bereaved parents,” he said.
Liberman announced last month that he was formally starting the process of selecting a new IDF chief of staff to succeed Eisenkot, who ends his term as commander of the military on December 31.
In addition to Golan other potential contenders are Aviv Kochavi, who currently serves as deputy chief of staff; Eyal Zamir, until recently head of the Southern Command; and Nitzan Alon, who formerly served as head of IDF Operations and is currently the project manager of Israel’s multi-front fight against Iran.
The selection process — developed at the recommendation of the military advocate general — consists of six stages, with many seeing Kochavi as the leading candidate.
Golan, an eloquent and generally well-regarded officer in the IDF, sparked a storm of controversy on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day in May 2016 over a speech he gave at the national ceremony at the Western Wall that was seen as comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.
“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,” he said.
Though critique of Israeli society was likely aimed at support for Jewish extremist actions, Golan also 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, an IDF soldier who shot and killed a wounded and disarmed Palestinian assailant in Hebron months earlier.
His comments were quickly denounced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior lawmakers, and many have tied the ensuing political fight over the remarks to the ouster of Moshe Ya’alon as defense minister a month later.
Golan has defended his comments, despite the uproar. In a video interview produced by the military at the end of his tenure as deputy chief of staff, he 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.”
Shortly after his Holocaust Remembrance Day address, a recording emerged from a decade prior, when Golan commanded the Judea and Samaria Division, named for the biblical term for the West Bank, in which he said it was “intolerable” that Israeli soldiers place Palestinian civilians in harm’s way instead of themselves.
“In the presence of civilians we take upon ourselves risks, and rightly so,” he was heard saying on recordings from 2006. “It’s unacceptable that in the name of preventing risk we would decide that now we are going to mow down an apartment building. You would kill women, children, those involved. It’s intolerable.”
If “an army unit needs to take risks in order not to harm bystanders, yes, it will take those risks not to harm bystanders,” he said.
Later in the recording, he warns soldiers that not every suspect person is a terrorist and tells them they can’t just kill people.
“Not in every combat situation are we all right-wing, are we all about to be slaughtered, and not every woman is hiding a terrorist behind her,” said Golan, then a commander in the Judea and Samaria Division. “I expect commanders to understand situations and take reasonable steps.”
Golan, fluent in both Hebrew and English, holds a master’s degree from Harvard University. He held a number of senior positions throughout his 37-year career in the IDF, including head of the Northern Command and head of the Home Front Command.
Times of Israel staff and Michael Bachner contributed to this report.