Will Ben-Gvir’s populist politics destroy the IDF’s ethical code?

MILITARY AFFAIRS: Without an ethical code, the IDF would face serious repercussions, meaning it must be ready to respond to politically sensitive events.

 IDF SOLDIERS intervene amid tension between Israelis and Palestinians in Hebron last month (photo credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS)
IDF SOLDIERS intervene amid tension between Israelis and Palestinians in Hebron last month
(photo credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS)

Israeli officials have long championed the IDF as the “world’s most moral army,” but with politicians increasingly giving parallel directives to military officers and contradicting the army’s ethical code, the IDF may be in danger of being guided by mob rule.

The Israeli military came into conflict with populist demands for how the army operates following soldiers’ mistreatment of activists in Hebron. Politicians not only intensified a trend in challenging the IDF’s orders by campaigning against the decision to punish the soldier, but crossed a new line by initiating an ostracization campaign directed at the soldier’s battalion commander.

I think we may be at the tipping point on the relationship between the society and the IDF,” former IDF spokesman Lt.-Col. (ret.) Peter Lerner told The Jerusalem Post. “The elected officials of the society need to be extremely cautious in how they treat the military, its leadership, its commanders and the individual soldiers.”

Encroachment of politics into military affairs

Five Givati Brigade soldiers were suspended on Saturday after the publication of videos that revealed an altercation in Hebron between them and left-wing activists. One soldier was shown to have violently subdued a protester by throwing him down and striking him.

Another soldier verbally harassed activists, warning them “[Otzma Yehudit head Itamar] Ben-Gvir will make order here. You’ve lost it. All you do here is finished.... I decide what the law is, and you are acting against the law.”

 Israeli soldiers stand guard during a Palestinian protest near the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh,east of Nablus, in the West Bank, November 25, 2022.  (credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90) Israeli soldiers stand guard during a Palestinian protest near the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh,east of Nablus, in the West Bank, November 25, 2022. (credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)

An IDF inquiry published on Wednesday confirmed that the men were provoked by the activists, but the soldiers acted inappropriately. The physically abusive soldier was put under investigation by military and civilian police, the one who referenced Ben-Gvir was jailed for 10 days. The army’s decision immediately became a lightning rod for the politician he had invoked.

Ben-Gvir said it was “very unfortunate that a soldier who suffered harassment was sent to prison just for mentioning my name,” visited his family, and claimed that the “inappropriate” punishment limited the ability of soldiers to act.

Lt.-Col. Aviran Alfasi, commander of Givati’s Tzabar Battalion, received a torrent of abuse and was the target of what Prime Minister Yair Lapid said was “wild incitement“ spearheaded by politicians and members of Knesset.

“Never in my lifetime have I seen what we saw yesterday with the naming and shaming of a battalion commander,” said Lerner – “not by any of the human rights organizations, not by Breaking the Silence, not by B’Tselem, not by any of them – what we saw yesterday by some of these fanatics that have perhaps even identified him in a way that could jeopardize him and put his family at risk.”

In response to rebukes for politicizing the IDF, including by the IDF chief of Staff, Ben-Gvir said that he had “no intention of interfering with the punishment, but the policy will change.”

The trend of IDF politicization

Lerner explained social stigma against IDF politicization had slowly been eroded by the political Right over years.

An Israeli official and former IDF commander told The Jerusalem Post that an event like this week’s was “inevitably going to happen, where politics, together with a viral video and a polarized society commenting on that video, kind of create the situation that we’re in. I think this incident is distinct in the fact that it’s the first time these specific things have met. But there are many characteristics of what we’re seeing now that we’ve seen in other places before.”

In 2014 David “the Nahlawi” Admov was defended by former prime minister Naftali Bennett for cocking his gun when confronted by aggressive Palestinian youth in Hebron. Likud’s Miri Regev often visited Elor Azaria, who was imprisoned for manslaughter in 2015 for killing an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist.

Political cynicism, not ethics, at play?

To the Israeli official, the debate isn’t truly about IDF standards, but a chance for some politicians to score against their opponents.

“If he [the soldier] had spoken to someone who was right-wing, would it have received the response that it did?” asked the official. “At any opportunity politicians can jump on a subject to polarize Left versus Right, they’ll do so.”

Lerner noted that such incidents where Ben-Gvir was “backing up” soldiers all have “to do with conduct of military affairs in the West Bank.”

When a female soldier was attacked and injured by an Israeli settler in Hebron in mid-November when a pilgrimage devolved into riots, it received very little coverage and political engagement compared to the Givati incident.

The official said what made this event different was that it was turned into a “media crisis for the IDF – whereby a lot of it is being managed in the media. If it weren’t for the media and the statements being made by each side, then the incident would have been far behind us. But it was a video that went viral, and the statements are being retweeted” and replied to by other politicians.

Lerner said “the military needs to have the freedom to operate, on one hand, but it also needs to be under the scrutiny of the political echelon – but not as a tool to gain political support through cheap populism. This is what we are in, the age of populist politics, and this is the problem. They [populist politicians] are empowered by people liking their tweets, retweeting them and giving them support.”

Populist rule or moral compass?

The IDF’s ethical code was developed, according to Lerner, to take into account requirements of international law and Jewish tradition.

He also disagreed with Ben-Gvir’s claims about soldiers being too restricted, saying, “There is ample freedom for use of force by soldiers in extreme and in dangerous situations for their own lives or for the civilians around them. The existing rules of engagement are absolutely adequate to address those concerns.”

A system with a loosened or no defined ethical code would be a system in which each soldier needs to use only his judgment and hope a populist mob will support him. This would leave soldiers lost and vulnerable, and thereby limit their operational decisions by fear.

Lerner explained that “we need the code of ethics that is the military’s compass, that is the guiding star of how to operate in tricky circumstances and situations where values sometimes crash.” Otherwise soldiers won’t know how to respond. Without the code, the IDF “would be no different from an armed gang.”

Lost without a code

Without an ethical code, the IDF would face serious repercussions.

US politicians have already expressed deep concerns about the new coalition and hesitancy to work with some of its elements.

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post on Wednesday, former US ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and former US State Department negotiator Aaron David Miller called on President Joe Biden to cease providing offensive weapons to Israel’s incoming government. The US State Department also expressed concern about the IDF’s rules of engagement after the death of Shireen Abu Akleh in a gun battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen.

Alteration of the IDF’s policies, as Ben-Gvir has called for, could amplify and expand the roster of those within the US government who wish to limit the US’s relationship with Israel

Furthermore, the IDF is still subject to international law. Soldiers sent by politicians and a populist movement to commit actions in contradiction to these laws could result in soldiers being arrested when they travel abroad. They wouldn’t be alone. Lerner noted that the politicians that implemented these illegal policies would also be in danger of being arrested outside of Israel.

Finding a way back

Stemming the trend of the military’s popularization could be difficult.

“I feel that it’s going to be very hard to roll back, if it would even be possible to roll back to a certain level of admiration for the military and the establishment,” said Lerner. “The military needs to judge itself according to those standards, and the politicians need to accept that the military knows what it’s doing, because it’s done so well for the last 75 years.”

The Israeli official said the solution lies with the question of how to “deal with situations of media crisis, because politicians are always going to respond, and that’s what they’re meant to do. They’re meant to make news and push their agenda forward.”

The IDF and defense establishment may need to be ready to respond to politically sensitive events with the same newfound alacrity as it does to public diplomacy-sensitive incidents. Even if the situation is a political game for politicians, Ben-Gvir’s supporters believe him when he says he will change IDF policy. And while polls often reflect temporary public moods and knee-jerk reactions, many also support these changes.

A new Israel Democracy Institute poll revealed that 55% of all Israelis think soldiers should kill terrorists even after they’ve been subdued, a jump from 37% in 2018.

According to Netanyahu, “The IDF is the people’s army; I call on everyone, Right and Left, to leave it out of any political debate.”

While it is the people’s army, the IDF military elites need to be able to explain to the public how it doesn’t make decisions based on the people’s popular demands. In the same way Israel explains its actions to the world, the military may need to explain its code to the Israeli public to end the populist trend.