Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined a chorus of voices pushing back against Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s claim that Israeli soldiers fear the military prosecution, signalling that the Jewish Home leader will not be given a grace period following his announcement earlier in the day that he will not force early elections.
“IDF soldiers are not afraid of anyone,” Netanyahu wrote in a brief tweet.
The comment came after Bennett criticized the army’s Military Advocate General Corps — which, he said, helped prevent soldiers from carrying out their fighting duties — during a closely watched speech in which he announced that his party would remain in the government.
Bennett complained in the address that the army was too concerned with the legalities of war to fight properly, saying, “We impose on our warriors legal and conceptual hoops” they must jump through. “Our warriors are more worried about the Military Advocate General Corps than about [Hamas leader] Yahya Sinwar in Gaza.”
The comment drew rare criticism of a politician from the IDF’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who opened Monday’s meeting with the army’s General Staff by backing Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek.
“The MAG [corps] is part of the IDF’s strength. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the army’s commanders and warriors in carrying out their operational goals and winning on the battlefield,” Eisenkot said in comments released by his office to the press.
Following the criticism, Bennett’s office said he would not apologize for the comments.
“He does not intend to apologize for, or retract, his remarks,” a Jewish Home party spokesperson said. “He believes that we are making ourselves jump through excess legal hoops, and this harms both operations and fighters.”
Bennett’s comments also drew criticism from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a retired major general who once headed the MAG corps.
“There is no truth to that statement,” Mandelblit said of Bennett’s criticism.
Bennett’s criticism of the Israel Defense Forces came during a dramatic announcement Monday morning that he would not force new elections, enabling Netanyahu’s razor-thin majority coalition to remain intact for the time being, despite Bennett’s earlier demands that he be made defense minister.
The head of the nationalist Jewish Home party had been a vocal advocate of Elor Azaria, an IDF soldier convicted of shooting and killing an already wounded and disarmed Palestinian attacker in 2015, and had used the case to attack previous defense ministers.
Despite heaping withering criticism on the government’s defense policies, Bennett said Monday he would back Netanyahu as Israel’s new defense minister — the prime minister is also the head of the Foreign and Health ministries — and would “stand by the prime minister’s side” in a bid to affect Israeli security policy from within.