How Deep is Israel’s Crisis? A Tale of Three (and a Half) Speeches (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- March 18, 2024)


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. The Israeli brigadier general who is leading the IDF’s fight in Gaza called on Israel’s leadership last week to “be worthy” of the soldiers’ sacrifice. Why did this speech cause such a commotion?

A. Brigadier General Dan Goldfus commands the only division still fighting on the ground in the Gaza Strip. His reputation as a combat commander is impeccable. So when, speaking in the Strip, he lectured both his IDF superiors and Israel’s political leadership to get their act together, the country took notice. To his military superiors Goldfus said, “We won’t flee from responsibility... But you have to be worthy of us.” To the politicians: “We have found the way to be together, each of us and his opinion, and to fight shoulder to shoulder. I expect the same ‘together’ from the leadership...  Make sure everyone does his part, that the effort is not in vain.”

Goldfus’s remarks were not pre-approved by the IDF spokesman or the chief of staff. IDF commanders are not supposed to publicly criticize their superiors, much less the political leadership. Goldfus’s messages were clear: stop squabbling and pull together; everyone must serve; you owe something more to those who have given their lives.

This was enough to rate Goldfus a severe reprimand from IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi. A few politicians voiced approval for the content if not the style of Goldfus’s remarks; most, embarrassed, remained silent. The public approved. Goldfus is a gutsy commander who knowingly broke the rules and put his career on the line.

Q. What’s behind this?

The backdrop was clear to all; it is both military and political. At the military level, this is a prolonged war against a tenacious Islamist guerilla army, Hamas in Gaza, and very possibly a similar campaign against an equally dedicated Islamist guerilla enemy in Lebanon-- Hezbollah. These two fronts have demonstrated to the security establishment that the IDF, far from evolving into a small, high-tech force as once projected, needs more rather than fewer soldiers.

That means the government has to force the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), some 12 percent of the population, to serve. Their blanket exemption has to be cancelled. Since the current war began, reportedly only 540 out of 66,000 exempted Haredim have out of patriotic fervor volunteered for military service. This is a national scandal. Meanwhile, compulsory service for everyone else is being lengthened to three years for men.

Still at the military level, the IDF continues to be run by senior brass who may have publicly acknowledged responsibility for mistakes that led to the war but have not yet stepped aside as expected. The combat echelon in the field, Goldfus and others, is waiting. Then too, at the political level, the government is presided over by a prime minister who refuses to acknowledge his responsibility for the war and refuses to permit a proper investigation of ‘what went wrong’.

Goldfus, who did not name names, was nevertheless understood to be referring to all. His extraordinary remarks reflect the crisis in Israeli leadership that preceded and has accompanied this war.

Q. Apropos Goldfus’s nuanced call for universal military service for ultra-Orthodox youth, Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef threatened just over a week ago that “if they force us into the army, we’ll all leave the country”. Is that such a bad idea for Israel?

A. Yosef was not the first Haredi leader who has threatened to take his flock and leave Israel rather than commit Haredi youth to serve in the armed forces like everyone else. Nor is this by any means the first call for Haredim to serve: the Haredi desertion has rankled most Israelis for a long time.

What is different today is that the country confronts a genuine need for additional military manpower. Hence Israelis, including the National Orthodox settler youth who have demonstrated exemplary military service since October 7, are less impressed than ever by statements like that of the yeshiva student who claimed last week that “every soldier owes his salvation to a page of gemara [a component of the Talmud] that I studied.”

What is also different today is Haredi political clout. Without the Haredi vote, Netanyahu would have no coalition.

It is tempting to take Yosef up on his threat and invite the Haredim to leave the country. After all, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students are, economically, parasites. They are draft-dodgers; judging by Yosef’s threat, they are hardly Israeli patriots. Their culture comprises magical thinking (e.g., a page of gemara saves soldiers’ lives) that reflects growing, and dangerous, messianism in the country at large. They oppress women. Their burgeoning numbers threaten Israel both demographically and economically.

But, in a different role that does not overly compromise their religious fervor, their country could use them. Haredim, listen to Goldfus, not Yosef!

Q. In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah latched onto Yosef’s threat to suggest that, after the Haredim, the remainder of Israel’s Jews would also flee the country. What planet does Nasrallah live on?

A. Nasrallah is generally seen by Israelis as a keen student of Israeli culture and trends. By equating Haredi draft-dodging with the attitude of the other 85 percent of Israeli Jews (in the half-speech referred to in our title), he demonstrated his rank ignorance of Israel and Israelis, who are standing up to fight the country’s Islamist enemies in unprecedented numbers.

This is the very ignorance that threatens to escalate the fighting on Israel’s northern front into another full-fledged war--one that could inflict serious losses on Israel but could destroy Lebanon. Still, Nasrallah’s remark brought a rare smile to our lips.

Q. Finally, in the US Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week termed PM Netanyahu a major obstacle to peace who is jeopardizing Israel’s future. Schumer called for new elections and a new leadership in Israel, as well as a two-state solution. President Biden endorsed this appeal. But isn’t this US interference in the internal affairs of a democratic ally?

A. Technically, yes. Hence not only did the Likud respond that “Israel is not a banana republic” but even President Herzog, whose roots are on the political left, felt it incumbent to remark that “It is unhelpful, all the more so as Israel is at war . . . to comment on the domestic political scene of a democratic ally.”

Schumer, backed by Biden, clearly feels that Netanyahu is endangering Israel and endangering the Israel-US relationship: “Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah,” he stated. He undoubtedly spoke for most of his fellow US Democrats as well as for many Israelis, a majority of whom do indeed seek new elections. Here is Knesset Opposition leader Yair Lapid: “Chuck Schumer’s speech is proof that one by one, Netanyahu is losing Israel’s biggest supporters in the U.S. Even worse--he’s doing it on purpose.”

But did Schumer’s remarks hasten Netanyahu’s fall or the holding of new elections in Israel? Hardly. True, most Israelis can identify with Schumer’s criticism of Netanyahu’s refusal to “disavow ministers Smotrich and Ben-Gvir” and “engage responsibly in discussions about a ‘day after’ plan for Gaza”. But Israelis broadly see no point in discussing a two-state solution right now with a dysfunctional or hostile Palestinian leadership, and resent calls to do so.

Netanyahu, sensing yet another paranoid opportunity to portray Israel as victim, hastened to declare Schumer’s speech “wholly inappropriate”. He proclaimed that the Israeli public is behind him (hence no need for elections), which it definitely is not: just look at the polls! What Netanyahu did not have to say is that his misbegotten coalition does indeed continue to support him, lest they all lose votes in a new election.

Note that Schumer, in a generally balanced and learned speech by a veteran American Jewish supporter of Israel, also pointed to Hamas and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as obstacles to peace, alongside Netanyahu and the Israeli far right.

Perhaps the most telling message for Israelis in Schumer’s remarks was one that largely got lost in the reporting, both in the United States and in Israel. Schumer stated that if his urgings are ignored and Netanyahu and his coalition remain in power, “then the United States will have no choice but to play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course.”

Schumer did not elaborate. He did not have to. ‘A more active role’, ‘shaping Israeli policy’, ‘leverage’ and ‘change the present course’ say it all about the degree to which the Biden administration seeks to influence Netanyahu’s wartime strategy--or lack thereof. Having deployed US troops off the coasts of Yemen and Gaza and deterrent aircraft carriers facing Hezbollah and Iran, having sent massive US weapons supplies to Israel and exercised vetoes on its behalf at the UN Security Council, Biden and Schumer have every right to make demands of Israel, whether Netanyahu likes it or not.

(Even Donald Trump just told Netanyahu to “end the war quickly”.)

Q. Bottom line?

A. Between them, Brigadier General Goldfus, Rabbi Yosef and Senator Schumer last week gave articulate voice to Israel’s current dysfunction. Hezbollah’s Nasrallah offered the only slightly amusing distraction from a very ominous situation.