National Missions Minister Orit Stuck accused the three top security chiefs of treason by comparing them to the Russian mercenary Wagner Group and then apologized, but not before she hit a raw nerve and deepened the debate about whom Israel can and cannot call a terrorist.
“Who are you, the Wagner force?” the Religious Zionist Party MK said of the trio: IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet Chief Ronen Bar and Police Chief Kobi Shabtai.
During an interview with Kol Barama Radio on Monday morning, she dismissed as dangerous the statement the three men had issued over the weekend in which they said that settler violence against innocent Palestinians was an act of nationalist terror.
“Who are you to issue such a statement under the nose of the government?” she said of the security chiefs, adding, “are [you] going to teach us morals?”
The three men spoke out after a series of settler rampages against Palestinian villages in the West Bank in which homes and vehicles were torched, and copies of the Korans were destroyed. A Palestinian man was killed during the violence in one of the attacks.
Struck was careful to condemn the violent settler rampages during her interview, stating: “I am against these events, but calling it Jewish nationalist terrorism is a shame and disgrace.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned Struck’s comparison of the security chiefs to the Wagner force and spoke in defense of the three men.
“The leaders and personnel of our security services are working day and night to defend the State of Israel and its citizens,” Netanyahu said.
“In a democracy, everyone is subject to criticism; however, there are no grounds for denigrating the people who are leading our fight against terrorism and for the security of Israel.”
Struck herself retracted the comparison. “The expression ‘Wagner force’ is incorrect, and I apologize for it. It came up in the conversation due to its presence in the news, but it is completely inappropriate.
“I apologize and ask for forgiveness!” she said, but she underscored that she stood by her anger at their charge that settler violence was akin to acts of national terror.
“I do not retract my substantive criticism that our security establishment leaders, who are dedicated and deserving of respect as they are, should not be moral judges but rather preservers of security.”
Her words helped fuel an already sensitive debate on the settler attacks over the last week, as the Right has doubled down on keeping the spotlight on Palestinian terror, particularly in light of the attack outside the Eli settlement last week that claimed four Israeli lives.
Criticism mounts over comparison to the Wagner group
Former defense minister MK Benny Gantz, who heads the National Unity Party, and former prime minister MK Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid Party, both called for Struck’s dismissal.
“The comparison made by the heads of the security forces to the Wagner group is a moral disgrace and undermines the security of the country. Netanyahu must dismiss Orit Struck today,” Gantz said.
“Every minute she remains in office is a message of security negligence, encouragement to anarchists, and harm to the IDF, the Shin Bet, and the Israeli police,” he said.
“Condemnations are not enough; action is required. It is time to put an end to the anarchy that undermines the security of the State of Israel.”
Lapid, who heads the opposition, said that “a minister in Israel who compares” the country’s security chiefs to “hired rebellious swordsmen is unworthy and cannot sit in the government of Israel.
“Netanyahu must stop the madness and rein in his irresponsible and bizarre ministers. The citizens of Israel owe their lives” to these heroes, he said.
Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli said that Netanyahu should have expected that Struck would make radical statements given that she was a “representative of the hilltop youth who are the perpetrators of settler terrorism” and as such should not have invited her “to sit at the government table.”
Michaeli added, “Why is it a surprise she attacks the heads of the Israeli security establishment? We and she are not on the same side: She is on the side of supporters of terrorism.”
Finance Minister and Religious Zionist Party chairman MK Bezalel Smotrich said that Struck had erred but that the significance of her words had been overblown by “insignificant politicians” who want to generate headlines “at her expense.”
He also rejected attempts to call settler rampages in Palestinian towns acts of “terror,” arguing in a press conference ahead of his party’s weekly meeting that terrorism was a fight against an “enemy” who wants to “remove us from the land,” while settlers were “brothers,” and therefore their violence should be treated as a civil crime.
The Right also charged that security forces have not done enough to protect Israeli lives in Judea and Samaria. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who heads the Otzma Yehudit Party, accused the Israeli security system of administering justice selectively, such that they discriminated against Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria.
“All of their eyes are on the settlers, the youth, the hilltops of Judea and Samaria – to enforce the law again and again and again in Judea and Samaria – but at the same time tens of thousands of illegal houses in the Negev and Galilee do not interest them.
“I am against breaking the law,” he said. “I think that there needs to be settlers everywhere in Judea and Samaria, but there will not be one law for settlers and another for the Golan Heights, Rahat and the protesters on Ayalon [highway],” the latter referring to demonstrators against the government’s judicial reforms.
Netanyahu said in response that he had “ordered an inquiry” into accusations of mistreatment of settlers by the security forces.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday issued a strongly worded statement defending the IDF, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the police from attacks from elements of the country’s political right-wing.
The defense minister was also responding to attacks on IDF Col. Eliav Elbaz from certain right-wing elements. On the one hand, Elbaz and the IDF were under verbal and sometimes physical attack from Jewish West Bank residents for limiting their ability to engage in revenge attacks against Palestinians.
On the other hand, they have been under verbal attack from elements of the country’s left-wing, the Palestinians, the West and various Middle Eastern countries for a failure in many other instances to prevent Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria from engaging in revenge attacks against Palestinians for terror attacks against Jews.
“If any public servants want to attack our security forces,” Gallant said, “he is invited to attack me, but don’t touch the IDF’s soldiers.”
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.