“Netanyahu, Levin, Ben-Gvir, Have You No Sense of Decency?” (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- August 21, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. In the past ten days, PM Netanyahu’s allies have orchestrated a campaign to impugn the loyalty and capability of the IDF leadership. The backdrop is army warnings that the coalition’s anti-democratic ‘judicial reform’ is leading growing numbers of pilots and other key officers to threaten to stop serving, thereby endangering security. Is there any precedent for this sort of campaign?

A. Around ten days ago, Israel Air Force Commander Tomer Bar and IDF Spokesperson Daniel Hagari convened briefings designed to sound the alarm regarding the genuine damage that will be done to Israeli security readiness if by next month the collective refusal to serve on the part of a growing number of reserve officers continues. IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, confronted by a furious PM Netanyahu with a demand to retract and deny, refused: these were official briefings, not deniable rumors. By last Sunday, Halevi himself was briefing a Knesset subcommittee.

Netanyahu let loose his attack dogs. Loose-cannon minister David Amsalem announced that the IDF was in revolt and its leaders “should be treated like rebels”. That was reminiscent of Netanyahu’s earlier accusation that “this is an army that is taking over the country”. Yair Netanyahu, the loudmouth ‘crown prince’ who is still in informal family exile in Florida, shared a Facebook post last Monday on Twitter (X) that said Halevi “will be remembered as the most failed and destructive chief of staff in the history of the IDF” for not cracking down on the protesting reserve officers. 

Within hours, Yair erased his post--perhaps the oldest trick in the Netanyahu father-and-son ‘who, me?’ playbook. Meanwhile, thuggish members of Knesset from the far-right parties of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir piled on with vicious attacks on Shin Bet Head Ronen Bar for daring to arrest one of the settlers who murdered a West Bank Palestinian two weeks ago. They accused the head of IDF Central Command, which has responsibility for the West Bank, of being pro-Arab. 

Anyone in the security community is now fair game for this coalition.

Note that to date, Netanyahu has not bothered (dared?) to brief his own Cabinet on the warnings of damage to security readiness presented to him by Halevi and the other security heads.

The IDF has never before been accused of disloyalty. In response, Defense Minister Yoav Galant backed Halevi publicly. Only this led Netanyahu, reluctantly and tardily, to do so meekly as well.

Q. What is the ‘judicial reform’ backdrop? Where do we stand with the Netanyahu coalition’s anti-democratic legislative initiatives?

A. Both Halevi and Galant are aware that next month the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties will, with coalition backing, submit laws to the Knesset to formally exempt all yeshiva students from conscription and award them the same benefits that soldiers receive. Also next month, the High Court of Justice will rule on the validity of last month’s Knesset-legislated ‘reasonableness’ restrictions on the Court’s freedom to disallow laws and appointments. The coalition from the PM on down is threatening to ignore the Court’s ruling and plunge Israel into constitutional crisis. 

The security chiefs have made clear that they will comply with the law as interpreted by the Court. Last week Chief of Israel Police Kobi Shabtai lined up with them: “the law is the compass of the police”. But his minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, pointedly stated that the 64 member of Knesset coalition has “the people’s mandate” and will have the last word--judges be damned. The economic sector, the Histadrut trade union as well as employers, announced they will launch a national strike to back the High Court.

In the context of Israel’s security, at stake is the capacity of the High Court to protect the IDF as an occupying army and the IAF as an air force attacking terrorists, against international court accusations that if ratified would jail Israeli pilots and generals the moment they set foot on foreign soil. As currently constituted, the High Court has the international prestige to, say, justify civilian casualties when the IAF attacks in Gaza or to back up the IDF when it confiscates land in the West Bank. Once Netanyahu and company are finished politicizing the Court, its judgment will no longer be respected in The Hague. (Lest we forget, Israel’s problem in the West Bank is the Occupation, not the army or the High Court.)

The threat to the most fundamental values that have until now united Israelis is palpable. Last Friday, a TV Channel 12 poll found that only seven percent of Israelis blame Halevi for the current tension, while most blame Netanyahu and the government.

Q. On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is this crisis?

A. A former IDF head of Intelligence, Major General Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, an extremely soft-spoken and reserved veteran, stated last week, “Lots of people are telling me that this is the most serious crisis in the country’s history. Some think the Yom Kippur War was worse. But at least in that war we did not suffer from a problem of unity within the IDF.” The Yom Kippur War is these days very much on the minds of veterans from a certain generation; Israel will commemorate 50 years to that war in scarcely a month.

Netanyahu did not dare attack the IDF until now. In the course of the past decade he has blamed the media, government legal advisers and the Israel Police for his failures. His ministers are rumored to be looking next for disloyalty in the universities. But never the security establishment. 

Netanyahu and his faithful followers appear to be guided in denigrating Halevi by two contrary motives. On the one hand, their attacks on Halevi are for protocol. In the event of disastrous damage to security, inevitably to be followed by an official commission of inquiry, they want to stake out a claim that it is not they who are to blame. That means they are conscious of the damage to Israel’s security being done by their anti-judicial campaign. 

On the other hand, judging by their reckless statements and handling of the security community, they apparently do not really fear a near-term war or attack on Israel. Hence they are prepared to take risks and to countenance the kind of damage to IDF readiness they are being warned about. They seem to calculate that once they have completed their reckless dismantling of the judicial branch and inflicted damage to the IDF as a ‘people’s army’, there will be plenty of time to repair things under a new and more compliant IDF leadership they will appoint.

On Saturday at 3 a.m., an IDF unit found itself in Hawara, a Palestinian town in the center of the West Bank and a focus of Palestinian-settler tension. The soldiers wounded a masked stone thrower who refused to identify himself when challenged, only to discover that for the first time the IDF had shot a settler terrorist. This can only further escalate tensions between the security community and the pro-settler coalition. Who in this government will stand up for the IDF?

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, an avid student of Israeli politics and enemy of Israel’s very existence whose methodical and analytical speeches not a few Israelis listen to attentively, stated last week: “In view of the political schism in Israel, the [IDF’s] current condition is the worst ever”. But are he and his Iranian sponsors planning a major military provocation or attack to take advantage of this perceived weakness?

Q. Bottom line?

A. In 1954 Joseph Welch, representing the US Army, confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy with memorable words of challenge and protest: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” 

McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt, based largely on innuendo and guilt by association, had by then terrorized a lot of Americans (including from my own close family). He and his allies in Congress had looked for communists, ‘subversives’, ‘fellow-travelers’ and homosexuals under the rug in the UN, the universities, the Atomic Energy Commission (Oppenheimer!), the federal government in general and the State Department in particular. Now he had taken on the US Army. 

McCarthy went a step too far. Welch’s appeal symbolized a turning point in the fortunes of McCarthy’s thuggish and devastating campaign. Is there a parallel here with the Netanyahu government’s attack on the IDF? True, the circumstances are different. The history is different. The armies are different. And where is our Joe Welch?

Still, I would like to think that I am not reminded of Welch’s challenge to McCarthy merely by chance.