Liberal democracies have in the past considered criticism of a government’s war effort – even by a private citizen – to be a criminal act. When a country is fighting for its life, unity is essential to ultimate victory. Detractors of the war effort can endanger its success.
In Abrams v. the US, for instance, the US Supreme Court upheld a ruling against two Jewish socialists convicted and imprisoned for 10 and 20 years, respectively, for distributing literature in Yiddish against America’s involvement in World War I. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used his dissenting opinion to make the now-famous “marketplace of ideas” argument.
Holmes’s position eventually won out. And that is a good thing. Nevertheless, sensitivity to attacks on a government by its citizens in the midst of a war effort understandably remains high.
Much more is at stake, however, when those voicing the criticism are not private citizens or even opposition politicians, but high-ranking members of the government.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued the following statement after relieving MK Danny Danon from his position as deputy defense minister for criticizing the cabinet’s handling of the war against Hamas: “At a time when the government of Israel and the IDF are in the midst of a military campaign against the terrorist organizations and are taking determined action to maintain the security of Israel’s citizens, it cannot be that the deputy defense minister will sharply attack the leadership of the country regarding the campaign.”
Israel is a nation at war. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip have fired around 1,400 rockets at nearly every part of Israel with the express intention of killing civilians.
As of this writing, they have succeeding in murdering one Israeli and if not for Iron Dome many more would have been killed.
Under the circumstances, it is unconscionable for Danon, who can freely voice his opinions in private government forums and try to influence cabinet decisions through the power of his arguments before ministers, to speak out publicly against the government while continuing to serve as a deputy minister. Since Danon did not resign, Netanyahu fired him.
What holds true for Danon should hold true for Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. On Tuesday, Liberman convened a press conference and called to reconquer Gaza, saying this was the only way to stop the Hamas rockets. He went on to ridicule “all this hesitation” surrounding the launching of a ground attack.
Just a few hours before, Liberman had been outvoted in the security cabinet. Instead of accepting that his opinion was rejected and either making a public show of support for the government or shutting up, he threw statesmanship to the wayside. In a crudely populist move, Liberman capitalized on the anger felt by Israelis rightfully fed up with the constant threat of rocket fire. He could have achieved the same goal more tactfully by making sure his opinion, as expressed in the security cabinet, was leaked to the press.
That is what other members of the cabinet such as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Transportation Minister Israel Katz do. Even if Liberman had expressed his position openly in answer to a journalist’s question, it would not be so bad. But he went ahead and called a full-fledged press conference.
The subtext of his message to the nation was that the government, and the man who heads it, is not doing enough to protect the lives of citizens. The setting in which he made the comments implied that he was directly challenging Netanyahu and presenting himself as an alternative for prime minister.
Dissent and the voicing of alternative opinions are essential to a healthy decision-making process. Group think is dangerous. But once a decision has been made cabinet members have a duty to show a united front or face the consequences of their conscience and quit.
There is no room for crude populism at a time when the Jewish state is in the midst of a war and the lives of Israelis lie in the balance.