Accused of advocating wartime IDF refusal, new Labor party head slams ‘manipulation’

Yair Golan says his words at an event earlier this month were distorted; police deny reports that they are probing the former general for incitement

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Yair Golan speaks after the results were announced in the Labor party primary elections, in Tel Aviv, May 28, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Yair Golan speaks after the results were announced in the Labor party primary elections, in Tel Aviv, May 28, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

New Labor party chief Yair Golan pushed back against a flurry of criticism on Thursday, claiming that he was a victim of a smear campaign by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians eager to portray him as undermining the country’s war effort.

Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party on Wednesday accused the newly elected Labor chair of pushing for reservists to refuse to serve in the IDF, following the publication of a video in which the former senior officer discussed the possibility of carrying out “civil disobedience” to bring down the government.

“We were shocked to hear the inciting and irresponsible words of the new head of the Labor party,” Likud said in a statement, accusing Golan of seeking to “encourage refusal during wartime.”

Such a call “harms the chances of returning the hostages and harms the security of the country,” Likud claimed. “All this for the opportunity to topple the government. There is no end to hatred.”

In the footage aired by the pro-Netanyahu Channel 14, reportedly from an event earlier this month, Golan could be heard recalling how elite reservists had stopped showing up for volunteer duty last year in protest of the Netanyahu government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.

“The smallest threat of civil disobedience puts Netanyahu under intense pressure,” he can be heard saying. “Why don’t we make much wider use of this?”

Asked for an example, Golan responded that civil disobedience could mean that “until this government is replaced, we don’t do reserve duty.”

Golan went on to qualify that he was “not discussing now if this is the best step.” However, in the clip published by Channel 14, the word “if” is inaudible and doesn’t appear in the network’s subtitles, leaving the impression that he said: “I am not discussing now, this is the best step.” He can be heard saying the “if” in other recordings of his statement.

Following the report, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich slammed Golan’s “irresponsible” rhetoric, while National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir sent a letter to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara calling for her to open a criminal investigation into Golan for “openly inciting insubordination and disobedience among reservists while the State of Israel is at war.”

Hitting back at his critics, Golan condemned the “attempt of the poison machine” to make him appear to endorse refusal, calling it “nothing less than cheap manipulation.”

The “poison machine” is the name some avowed Netanyahu critics use for what they say is a network of pundits, journalists, influencers and activists dedicated to besmirching the premier’s political rivals. Another name used for them is “Bibist,” a play on Netanyahu’s nickname Bibi.

“We are calling for a large, broad and continuous nonviolent civil protest that will lead to a change of government, elections, the return of the hostages, the return of the refugees to their homes and the end of the war for the survival of Netanyahu’s rule,” Golan tweeted on Wednesday evening.

In a subsequent post on Thursday afternoon, Golan reiterated his criticism, stating that “over the last day, I have been attacked by Netanyahu and the Bibist poison machine and its agents on Channel 14, on the radio stations, on the networks, and everywhere they inject their poison of divisiveness and incitement.”

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“We are not afraid! Not afraid of the poison machine, not afraid of the threats and incitement, not afraid of the illegal political use of the Ben Gvir police,” he added — referring to reports in right-wing media outlets that the police, who report to Ben Gvir, had opened a probe into the possibility that his remarks constituted incitement.

The police denied that they are probing Golan, stating that “contrary to various publications, no investigation/examination was opened against former MK Yair Golan.”

The police were looking into some complaints about Golan’s speech, the statement added.

Golan won this week’s Labor leadership primary with 95 percent of the vote on Tuesday evening and has promised to unite left-wing parties in order to “build a ruling party.”

A former IDF Northern Front and Home Front commander, Golan, 61, now a general in the reserves, was passed over for the position of IDF chief of staff in 2018, after a 2016 speech in which he likened contemporary trends in Israel to the “disturbing processes” that took place in Europe in the run-up to the Holocaust.

He later joined the Meretz party — which is further left than Labor — and served as deputy economy minister during the short-lived, ideologically diverse coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, and then made a failed bid for the leadership of Meretz ahead of the last elections.

Yair Golan, October 14, 2023. (Kan TV screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law).

Golan made headlines and received accolades last year when he headed to the front lines of Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on his own initiative and rescued many partygoers fleeing the massacre at the Supernova rave.

He is a strong critic of Netanyahu, telling Radio 103FM on Wednesday that Israel should have ended the war in Gaza four and a half months ago, “when we completed the step of crushing Hamas’s military wing.”

“Unfortunately, the prime minister doesn’t want to free the hostages because he understands that would lead to the end of the fighting, and he is dragging the country to a disaster. That’s why we must change course,” he said.

Channel 14’s report about Golan came less than a week after the appearance of a clip on social media of an armed and masked infantryman vowing to refuse Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s orders and asserting that soldiers will only listen to the prime minister. The clip was first shared on social media by the staunchly pro-Netanyahu journalist Yinon Magal and later reposted by Netanyahu’s son Yair, who later deleted it.

A screenshot of a video purporting to show an IDF reservist in Gaza threatening mutiny, published on May 24, 2024. (Screencapture/X: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

After being attacked for not condemning the video, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement saying that Netanyahu had “warned many times about the dangers of the phenomenon of insubordination and the permissive attitude toward it.”

In an apparent critique of both Golan and Netanyahu, National Unity party chief Benny Gantz, a member of the prime minister’s war cabinet, issued a statement panning refusal to report for duty and refusal to follow orders once in uniform.

“It is obligatory to report for regular and reserve service [and] the chief of staff is the highest level of command in the army. We don’t refuse an order, we don’t refuse to report — andwe only follow orders” he said. “This is true for all parts of Israeli society.”

“I call on my comrade in arms Yair Golan, and the entire leadership: leave the IDF out of the dispute, however deep it may be,” Gantz appealed.

Golan hit back with a strongly worded post on X, attacking the centrist politician for joining the premier’s emergency government after October 7, thus “handing Netanyahu a lifeline and sitting in a nationalist, Messianic and extreme government” that he said was damaging Israel in multiple ways.

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