The Role of the Army: Yaalon's Resignation and the Ethics of the Israel Defense Forces

Yishai Schwartz
Wednesday, June 8, 2016, 10:00 AM

Israel is still roiling over Benjamin Netanyahu’s sudden replacement of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a former general, with Avigdor Lieberman, a politician with no serious military experience and an unmistakeable illiberal streak. The sudden change was motivated by coalition politics, but it also teaches important lessons—about ethics in combat and the role of a military in a free society.

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Israel is still roiling over Benjamin Netanyahu’s sudden replacement of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a former general, with Avigdor Lieberman, a politician with no serious military experience and an unmistakeable illiberal streak. The sudden change was motivated by coalition politics, but it also teaches important lessons—about ethics in combat and the role of a military in a free society.

As documented brilliantly by journalist Amir Tibon, Netanyahu’s once-strong relationship with Yaalon unraveled fast over the past month. At the heart of the breakdown stands a murderer in uniform.

Over the past two years, stabbing attempts by “lone wolf” Palestinian attackers have become a near daily occurrence. Often, their targets have been civilians. But as Israelis have increasingly sought to separate themselves behind barriers and restrictions, Palestinian attackers—particularly in the West Bank—are settling for stabbing the only Israelis with whom they interact, soldiers. In March, shortly after one of these stabbings, an Israeli human rights groups released a shocking video. It shows a soldier arriving on the scene and calmly approaching the immobilized Palestinian attacker. He lifts his rifle and shoots the immobilized prisoner in the head.

The military’s response was swift. The soldier, later identified as Sgt. Elor Azaria, was arrested and charged with manslaughter. The Army’s Chief of Staff, Defense Minister Yaalon and Prime Minister Netanyahu all issued condemnations, denouncing the shooting as a stain on the army and a violation of military ethics.

Then the frenzy began. The soldier claimed he feared a suicide belt—a claim deemed ridiculous by commanders at the scene. Yet Netanyahu and Yaalon were buffeted by a tsunami of criticism from the populist hard-right, in part egged on by Lieberman. How dare the country’s leadership side with a terrorist and rush to judgment against one “our boys?” Netanyahu, ever attuned to the political winds within his base, called the Azaria family to express his sympathy. Yaalon held firm.

Netanyahu’s bow to political expediency is depressing. Who knew that there were two sides to the question of shooting an immobilized assailant? When American presidential candidates speak positively about torture, we can no longer be surprised. But we can still be appalled.

Azaria’s defenders do not admit to backing cold-blooded murder. Instead, they frame their arguments in the language of justification and suspension of judgment: maybe it really was self-defense, they insist. And isn’t everyone innocent until proven guilty? Perhaps there is some small comfort here. François de La Rochefoucauld famously said that hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Michael Walzer has said the same of lies we tell about war. Denial about a soldier’s murderous misconduct is unforgivable, but the fact that even the populist right feels the need to explain and justify using the language of self-defense offers a glimmer of consolation.

And there is the IDF itself. The Israeli military has a powerful rule-of-law culture and remains the country’s most respected institution. Lieberman is a provocateur committed to his own political advancement, not ideology or transformative leadership. His interest in the defense ministry is in gathering leadership and competency credentials in advance of an eventual bid for leadership of the Israeli right. Lieberman’s leadership demands vigilance, but there is not yet reason to fear an erosion of the Army’s institutional norms.

But there is danger from a different sort of moral confusion. Among mainstream commentators, both in Israel and America, disgust with Azaria and Netanyahu’s fecklessness were uniform. But among these same figures a fierce debate broke out over the propriety of a speech offered just a few weeks ago by the IDF’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Yair Golan. Golan was speaking at a ceremony on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, and he suggested that the day was a fitting time for “national soul-searching” and “grappling with our own ability to uproot” the seeds of cruelty and inhumanity. Most provocatively, Golan included a sentence where he revealed that what scared him most “in remembering the Holocaust is recognizing nauseating trends that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically back then, 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and seeing evidence of them here among us in the year 2016.” Golan then acknowledged that “purity of arms” (the Israeli term for military ethics) had recently much in the news, and he devoted the last portion of his speech to exhorting his audience to uphold the army’s values.

Immediately, Golan found himself at the center of a new storm of criticism. Parliamentarians and ministers from the right accused him of giving ammunition to Israel’s enemies. But even some of Israel’s most prominent liberals argued that his speech represented dangerous interference by the army in the political affairs of the day. For a general to speak about military ethics is fitting; to critique trends within Israeli society generally is to cross a red line. Israel must not become Turkey. The army must be subservient to civil society. A protector of the people’s bodies, not their souls.

Netanyahu sided with Golan’s critics. And once again, Yaalon backed his generals.

In a passionate speech on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day, Israel’s Defense Minister articulated a very different vision of civil-military relations. Commitments to democracy, to the sanctity of life, to respect for women, to welcoming the stranger, to the rule of law—opposition to racism, to cruelty and to hatred—are values of the army and of civil society. The IDF is a people’s army, the military and civil society must draw on and reinforce each other’s commitments to these values. Officers must be educators preparing citizens, not just military bosses. Yaalon exhorted his officers “to be courageous not just on the battlefield, but at the table of discussion” and he insisted that they had a role in the struggle against extremism within society—not just the enemies without.

Yaalon and Golan are on the right side of this debate, and their critics are misguided. The basic values they have championed cannot be the stuff of democratic controversy because they are the very preconditions that allow democracy. How these values must be balanced or made manifest at particular moments or in particular contexts are the stuff of politics, and from that the army must steer clear.

In a democracy, an army must never threaten force against the political echelon. But force is not an army’s means of influence. Any institution which dominates a young person’s life during her formative years will shape her. Handing a young man a gun is not a neutral act; it shapes and it molds him. There is no escaping the moral and educative role of a military—so the military must ensure that the role it plays is a positive one. And when young citizens take the lesson from a man in uniform that the killing of an immobilized attacker is justified, it is emphatically the province of the military to speak loudly. Especially in Israel—a country with a universal draft, where war is a constant, and with an almost familial level of national solidarity—the army is more than just the shield of the state. It is the melting pot where secular sons of government ministers sleep in trenches alongside the orthodox children of shopkeepers. And it is the crucible in which children become citizens. That role is one Yaalon understood—and that neither Lieberman nor his liberal critics do—and that is why his replacement is such a blow.

Yishai Schwartz is a third-year student at Yale Law School. Previously, he was an associate editor at Lawfare and a reporter-researcher for The New Republic. He holds a BA from Yale in philosophy and religious studies.

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