Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has summoned Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon for a “clarification conversation” over a Sunday speech in which Ya’alon urged IDF officers to continue speaking out against the “extremist minority” who, he said, were working to undermine the values of Israel’s military.
The meeting is set for Monday morning, according to Netanyahu’s office.
“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 PMO official said.
The conversation was not a “reprimand,” the official explained, but only a “clarification.”
According to Channel 2, some associates close to the defense minister fear this latest disagreement could cost Ya’alon his job, with that post going to Avigdor Liberman, head of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu which sits in the opposition, having opted not to join Netanyahu’s government after the 2015 elections.
Amid talks of expanding the coalition, which currently has a razor-thin majority of 61-59, Liberman could be enticed into the government with the offer of the defense portfolio, according to the report, heralding a new chapter in Netanyahu-Liberman ties following a deep rift that emerged after the elections last year.
In his address Sunday, Ya’alon appeared to back Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan’s speech nearly two weeks ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, that seemed to liken “certain trends” in Israel to pre-Nazi Germany. Golan’s speech was fiercely criticized by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also reportedly scolded Ya’alon in a “tense” phone call.
In sharp contrast to Netanyahu, Ya’alon has dismissed the widespread criticism of Golan, saying he had “full confidence” in the “valued and accomplished” deputy chief of staff.
Golan clarified that he never intended to compare Israel to pre-WWII Germany, and Netanyahu last Monday insisted the issue was “behind us.”
The defense chief on Sunday 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 an address to the IDF leadership at the Defense Ministry’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The fight against this group “keeps me up at night,” the defense minister said, adding that it “makes me determined to fight this.”
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.
At the same time, the defense minister contended that “we will support those who made mistakes in good faith, but we will not tolerate those who reject authority and act against the law and [our] values,” Ya’alon 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.
“This is my demand of you, senior IDF officers, and this ought to be your demand of your subordinates: Keep acting in accordance with your humane conscience and moral compass, and not according to which way the winds are blowing,” he adds.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday said Netanyahu gives “full backing” to the IDF, but reiterated that Golan’s comments were “inappropriate.
“IDF officers express their opinions freely, in the relevant forums and on the issues that are under their jurisdiction,” the statement from Netanyahu’s office said. “The IDF is the people’s army and must remain out of political debates.”
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 added.
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 over values,” Lapid added.
MK Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, also backed Ya’alon, claiming that 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.”
On 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.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.