‘You’re the refuser’: Netanyahu’s former commander says he evaded wartime service

PM’s office denies claim by retired Lt. Col. Shlomi Reisman, says he wasn’t even Netanyahu’s commander during Lebanon War

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu as a soldier in Sayeret Matkal. (Wikicommons/GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu as a soldier in Sayeret Matkal. (Wikicommons/GPO)

A former commander of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israel Defense Force’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit on Tuesday accused him of refusing reserve duty during the First Lebanon War, a day after the premier spoke out against reservists who threatened to refuse duty over the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

Netanyahu’s office dismissed the claim as utterly false.

In a letter to Netanyahu, Lt. Col. (ret.) Shlomi Reisman wrote that while the premier served as a diplomat in Washington, DC, in 1982, he refused to return after being called back for an operation that “wasn’t to your liking.”

“In those years when I was your reserve battalion commander, we bore the burden, and each of your friends, young and old, served 40-70 days of reserve duty each year. Some even came especially from overseas. You served a minuscule number of reserve days, so I removed you from the unit’s order of battle,” Reisman wrote.

“Compared to you, the reservists you lash out at do many days of reserve duty, without making excuses or stories, and they are not ‘refusers.’ You are the refuser. You refuse to stop the destruction of democracy and the IDF,” he added.

In a strongly worded response, the Prime Minister’s Office labeled Reisman’s accusation “a complete lie,” claiming that he had not actually been Netanyahu’s direct commander in the IDF.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu dedicated his life to the security of Israel and even risked his life several times in battles during the Yom Kippur War and other operations. He was also injured in an operation to release hostages from the Sabena plane,” the statement said, referring to the 1972 hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of a commercial aircraft flying from Vienna to Tel Aviv.

Then-defense minister Moshe Dayan at Lod Airport, following the 1972 hijacking of Sabena flight 571. (Eli Dorin/Israel Defense Forces Archive)

“Whenever called upon, Prime Minister Netanyahu showed up for reserve duty. This is what he expects from everyone, and he has great respect for the reserve soldiers who bear the burden of defending the country,” the statement said.

As for Reisman’s claim that Netanyahu evaded his reserve duty service during the First Lebanon War, the premier’s office said he had been appointed to serve as a special PR envoy in Washington one month beforehand, and that the war had broken out on the eve of his planned departure to the US.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu reported for duty and even went on a special assignment in Lebanon before heading to Washington, his office said.

Reisman later responded to Netanyahu’s denial saying: “Bibi, If you had shown up for reserve duty, you would have known that I was your commander,” adding that plenty of other reserve soldiers had come back to Israel to serve even if they were living or posted abroad.

The PMO’s version also appeared to contradict other testimony on Netanyahu’s service and even the premier’s own previous comments on the matter.

According to a 1996 expose in the Kol Ha’ir weekly, Netanyahu did report to base at the beginning of the First Lebanon War along with others in his unit. However, after waiting for six days to receive his assignment, he went home and did not participate in the fighting.

Fellow Sayeret Matkal fighter Eli Gil confirmed to Kol Ha’ir that he drove Netanyahu home that day but said he didn’t know why Netanyahu had sought to leave.

Four and a half years before the expose, Netanyahu told the Hadashot daily that he couldn’t remember whether he was drafted to serve in the First Lebanon War but that he had insisted on waiting to deploy to Washington until after he made it to the frontlines. “I think the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit even organized a tour for me in Beirut,” he told Hadashot then, in an apparent reference to the special assignment he mentioned in his Wednesday statement.

Three weeks before the Kol Ha’ir expose, Netanyahu responded to a reporter’s query saying that he had actually not been drafted and only “volunteered” in the First Lebanon War.

“Because the people who fought were chosen selectively, I was not chosen because I am a bereaved brother,” he said at the time, referring to his brother Yoni Netanyahu who was killed in the 1976 raid to rescue Israeli hostage at the Entebbe airport.

The response angered an anonymous senior officer in Netanyahu’s unit who told Kol Ha’ir that the future prime minister was fudging the details of the incident. “Bibi was recruited like everyone else. What does that mean that he “volunteered?” That he did a favor for the country and I only came because I was drafted? Both Bibi and I reported there because we were summoned. The difference is that I stayed because I had no choice and Bibi, for his own reasons, found a way to evade service.”

The former commander also denied that Netanyahu had submitted a request to be excused from reserve service because of his status as a bereaved brother, insisting that he would have accepted such a request had one been filed.

Reisman’s Wednesday letter appeared to be a response to a press conference held by Netanyahu on Monday night, in which he asserted that warnings by army reservists that they could refuse service over the proposed overhaul projected weakness to Israel’s enemies.

Netanyahu also announced the reinstatement of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whom he fired two weeks ago for publicly calling to freeze the overhaul plans.

In the letter, Reisman slammed Netanyahu for reportedly telling generals that they had “gone on strike,” and for not firing Intelligence Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan after she called reservists who planned to refuse duty “weaklings fallen by the wayside.”

“You didn’t fire her. Your silence makes you complicit in her malicious remarks,” he wrote.

Over the past few months, reservist groups, including pilots and special forces officers — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities — increasingly warned that they would not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which they charged the country would become under the government’s plan.

Soldiers have also expressed concern that a lack of international trust in the independence of Israel’s judiciary could expose them to prosecution in international tribunals over actions they were ordered to carry out during service.

The trend sparked deep fears among the security establishment, which warned Netanyahu that the IDF’s operational capacity is at risk.

Netanyahu temporarily paused the legislative push late last month, after mass protests erupted following his announcement that he would remove Gallant from his position as defense minister. Gallant had called to pause the overhaul and allow for talks on a compromise, warning that growing dissent extending into the military over the government’s proposals presented a tangible national security threat.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: