Israeli officer's warning on anti-Arab violence hits a nerve

The Netanyahu government has taken issue with top army general's characterization of trends in Israeli society. The military is seen as an important voice that is above politics.

Dan Balilty/Pool/Reuters
Israeli soldiers stand guard during a ceremony marking the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, May 5, 2016.

A warning by a top army general that Israeli society is showing trends similar to those that swept Nazi Germany in the 1930s has been sharply rebuffed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latest sign of strain in relations between Israel's military leadership and rightist government.

On several recent occasions, the army command has taken on the role of conveyor of uncomfortable truths, providing sobering reality checks that have put it at odds with political leaders.

The latest furor erupted after Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, the army's deputy chief of staff, spoke with unusual forthrightness last week at a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day. His remarks reflected concern in the military leadership about eruptions of anti-Arab violence and rhetoric, fueled in recent months by a surge of Palestinian stabbings and other attacks on Israelis.

"If there is something that frightens me in the memory of the Holocaust, it is identification of horrifying processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, 70, 80, and 90 years ago, and finding evidence of them here among us, today in 2016," Golan said.

Warning against xenophobia and "brutalization," he said that the commemoration should serve as an opportunity for "national soul-searching" and discussion of how to "uproot signs of intolerance, violence, and self-destruction on the path to moral decline."

Golan's remarks, made at a sensitive moment of memorial observance, were seen by critics as poorly timed and drawing an inappropriate parallel. But they underscored the army's enhanced role as a counterweight to the political stance of the current government. They also bucked the prevailing nationalist backlash against the wave of Palestinian violence. 

"At critical junctures, when there have been irrational elements in politics and in the public, the army has emerged as an element driven by rational considerations," says Meir Elran, co-director of the Society-Security program at The Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "This has greatly contributed to maintaining balance in the country."

Moshe Halbertal, a philosophy professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and co-author of the army's ethical code, said that the military is "a unique voice because it's a professional body that doesn't have to answer to political constituencies and coalition pressure."

"There is a tradition in which the military produces less militant outlooks," Halbertal added. "It is the most constrained, complex, mature body to a certain degree, and its command has internalized in a serious way moral norms in warfare."

At times that has put the army at loggerheads with Netanyahu and the ultra-nationalist flank of his government.

Netanyahu publicly rebuked Golan in remarks before the weekly meeting of his cabinet on Sunday, saying that the officer's statements "do an injustice to Israeli society and cheapen the Holocaust." Culture Minister Miri Regev, meanwhile, demanded the general's resignation.

A similar confrontation occurred after a soldier fatally shot a wounded Palestinian assailant as he lay on the ground in the West Bank city of Hebron in March.

While the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, warned that violators of the military's code of conduct would be prosecuted and the soldier was court-martialed and charged with manslaughter, rightist ministers, led by Naftali Bennett, head of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, cautioned against what they called a rush to judgment.

Netanyahu, who initially criticized the shooting, fell in line with the right flank of his coalition following public expressions of support for the soldier. He called the soldier's father to assure him that his son would be fairly treated, and declared that he expected legal proceedings to take into account the extenuating circumstances of the shooting.

In an earlier sign of differences between the government and the army leadership, the chief of military intelligence told the cabinet in November that the ongoing wave of Palestinian attacks, mostly by young assailants, was driven in part by a sense of despair and frustration caused by the continuing conflict with Israel.

That analysis contrasted with Netanyahu's repeated argument that the violence was not the result of the ongoing impasse in peace efforts, but provoked by anti-Israeli incitement by the Palestinian Authority and Islamist groups.

Widely respected in Israel, where military service is compulsory, the army is viewed as being above politics, and top generals carry significant moral authority.

"It is not just a professional army, but an important social institution with important social goals," said Yohanan Plesner, president of The Israel Democracy Institute, a research group. "I think it is the role of the generals to articulate the values that guide us and their operations, and in this respect it is well outside the confines of politics and well within their responsibility." 

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