IDF and Israeli politics are a dangerous mix - editorial

Ben-Gvir is already interfering in the IDF’s decision-making process. If that is how he behaves before receiving a ministerial appointment, what can the country expect once he is sworn in? 

 Soldiers confront left-wing activists in Hebron, November 25, 2022. (photo credit: Issa Amro and Tal Sagi/Screenshot)
Soldiers confront left-wing activists in Hebron, November 25, 2022.
(photo credit: Issa Amro and Tal Sagi/Screenshot)

“The IDF is the people’s army. I call on everyone, from the Right and the Left, to keep it out of all political debate.”

Thus spoke prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu via Facebook on Wednesday morning, four days after two Givati soldiers in Hebron were videoed behaving in a manner unbecoming of IDF soldiers – one of them throwing a left-wing activist to the ground and then punching him in the face, and the other making political pronouncements and saying that Itamar Ben-Gvir, expected to be the next national security minister, will impose order in the city. 

Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen Aviv Kohavi wrote to the troops shortly after the incidents became public, reminding them of their responsibilities, saying unnecessary force must not be used, and “certainly not outbursts prompted by anger or revenge.”

The IDF quickly started disciplinary actions against the soldiers. While the punishment for the soldier who physically assaulted the protester has not yet been handed down, Tzabar Battalion commander Maj. Aviran Alfasi swiftly meted out punishment to the second soldier: 10 days in jail.

Then social media erupted, with right-wing activists attacking Alfasi, a highly-praised officer who won a commendation during Operation Protective Edge for volunteering to enter a terror tunnel in Gaza in search of kidnapped soldier Hadar Goldin. His heroic past did not shield him from the bile on social media, where he was slandered and threatened. 

 Soldiers confront left-wing activists in Hebron, November 25, 2022. (credit: Issa Amro and Tal Sagi/Screenshot) Soldiers confront left-wing activists in Hebron, November 25, 2022. (credit: Issa Amro and Tal Sagi/Screenshot)

Adding to the circus was Ben-Gvir, who on Saturday evening blasted not the soldiers for their actions, but the chief of staff for reprimanding them. He argued that the soldiers need to be given public support, and that they face deliberate provocations from far-left protesters. 

IDF soldiers must no better, IDF must not be politicized

Indeed, every week far-left agitators go to Hebron and deliberately provoke the soldiers doing their duty, hoping to catch the soldiers on camera doing precisely what they were caught on camera doing on Saturday. 

Soldiers, however, should know better, and must act better. When they don’t, they need to be punished. And when they are punished, the political echelon needs to give the army full backing, not second-guess those in charge. 

Ben-Gvir’s public disagreement with Kohavi – the two butted heads again on Wednesday over the 10-day jail sentence – is inappropriate, to say the least. The last thing Israel’s enemies need to see is the IDF General Staff fighting with the political echelon

Equally unseemly, however, was Netanyahu’s silence – until he wrote his nine-word Facebook post – and that of the man likely to be his defense minister, Yoav Gallant. They both needed to speak out immediately, and firmly, against political interference in the IDF.

Israel is, and has always been, a divided country, with an extremely diverse population holding very different opinions. One of the secrets to the country’s survival has been its ability not to let those political divisions interfere with the army’s work. 

Sure, soldiers talk politics in the barracks and while on patrol, but politicians, with their own political and ideological agendas, have stayed out – and been kept out – of the day-to-day decision-making in the army. 

This is how it must be; this is what prevents the military from serving one political ideology or another. 

Ben-Gvir is already interfering in the IDF’s decision-making process. If that is how he behaves before receiving a ministerial appointment, what can the country expect once he is sworn in? 

As Kohavi said on Wednesday, “The commanders, and only the commanders, determine the norms and the manner of handling incidents in their units.... We will not allow any politician, neither from the Right nor for the Left, to interfere in command decisions and use the army to promote a political agenda.”

“The commanders, and only the commanders, determine the norms and the manner of handling incidents in their units.... We will not allow any politician, neither from the Right nor for the Left, to interfere in command decisions and use the army to promote a political agenda.”

Aviv Kohavi

Ben-Gvir is not going to listen to Kohavi. He may, however, listen to Netanyahu. But to listen to Netanyahu, Netanyahu first needs to make his voice heard – something he didn’t do until he issued that anemic Facebook post. 

But that was not enough. Netanyahu needs to let Ben-Gvir know in no uncertain terms that there are redlines that, if crossed, could have tragic consequences for the country. 

The mixing of politics and the army is one of those redlines.