The Israeli military, which has battled foes on all of the country’s borders, is now facing a challenge from within: nationalist politicians who are openly disagreeing with army commanders and bickering with the security establishment.
This growing rift was underscored by angry reactions from inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to Wednesday’s manslaughter conviction of an Israeli soldier who fatally shot an already wounded Palestinian attacker. Netanyahu and other senior Cabinet ministers quickly called for Sgt. Elor Azaria to be pardoned, in effect undercutting the authority of the military court that convicted him.
The swift reactions, coming before Azaria has even been sentenced or filed an appeal, were the latest in a series of squabbles between Israel’s hard-line leadership and military commanders. It is uncharted waters for the military, which has traditionally seen itself as being above politics and is widely regarded as the country’s most trusted institution.
But it also reflects a wider and increasingly visible schism. In a country that seems to grow more divided by the day, the security establishment is at loggerheads with the Netanyahu government and its nationalist base of supporters — aligning instead in subtle but noticeable ways with more liberal opposition forces.
“I think we are witnessing a very dangerous phenomenon where the division in Israeli society is trickling into the army,” retired Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, who held some of the military’s most senior posts, told Israel Radio. “This is a very severe trend that is being exacerbated by irresponsible, unrelenting politicians.”
On one level, this is about relations with the Palestinians and what to do with the West Bank and its more than 2 million occupied Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s coalition seems content to maintain this indefinitely, despite warnings it is leading to a binational state and constant friction with the Palestinians, Western allies and the Arab world. If anything, the incoming administration of Donald Trump seems to be emboldening Israel’s hard-liners, who believe he will be much more tolerant of their policies and continued settlement of occupied lands.
But the debate is also about the nature of the country. Military commanders still tend to reflect Israel’s founding class — mostly secular, pragmatic Zionists who believed that they could ultimately build a model society in which equal rights and the rule of law prevailed.
In recent years, this part of Israel has been on the defensive. To a degree, Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its allies represent another side of the country: one that is more religious, deeply conservative, supportive of the West Bank settler movement and committed to democracy and liberal values in a far more tenuous way.
The coalition has tried to block the court-ordered evacuation of an illegal West Bank settlement outpost built on private Palestinian land. It has pushed legislation to retroactively legalize dozens of similar outposts. It has imposed regulations on dovish advocacy groups. And Culture Minister Miri Regev, a Netanyahu ally, has threatened to cut funds to theaters that refuse to perform in West Bank settlements.
“The settler leadership wants to fashion the military anew as part of its plan to impose its religious-political vision on all of Israel … to reject the founding principles upon which Israel was established and to replace them with a reactionary and messianic vision,” wrote Liat Schlesinger, executive director of Molad, a leftist think tank.
Azaria was tried after a human rights worker filmed him in March fatally shooting a badly wounded Palestinian assailant in the West Bank city of Hebron. The assailant had already been shot after stabbing an Israeli soldier and was lying on the ground.
Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, the head of the military, was among the first to condemn Azaria, saying his actions ran counter to its ethics and values.
But instead of getting support from political leaders, the army’s decision to prosecute was called into question. Hard-line politicians, led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, accused the army of abandoning a soldier on the battlefield. After initially defending the army, Netanyahu changed tack, even calling Azaria’s parents to offer support.
The dispute helped lead to the removal of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a former army chief who had backed his commanders. Avigdor Lieberman, a hard-liner who visited Azaria in court, subsequently became the defense chief.
Netanyahu, Bennett and others quickly called for a pardon of Azaria.
“This is a difficult and painful day for all of us, first and foremost for Elor and his family,” Netanyahu said in a statement posted on Facebook. “I support granting a pardon to Elor Azaria.”
Added Bennett: “The mothers and fathers of IDF fighters are watching, and they want to know that there is a system here that is supportive.”
Eizenkot, meanwhile, was excoriated on social media in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. A small crowd of extremists demonstrating outside military headquarters called for his assassination. Bodyguards were assigned to the judges who convicted Azaria, media reported.
The anger over the verdict reflects the place of soldiers in Israeli society. Military service is compulsory for Israeli Jews, so most have relatives in the service and soldiers are seen as “our boys and girls.” Opinion polls in Israeli media showed 70 percent of the Jewish public supports a pardon.
“How populist can our politicians be?” columnist Sima Kadmon wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “They say with one side of their mouths that they respect the court and demand with the other something that negates, cancels and disparages the verdict.”
This trend has been in the making for years. One of the first signs was a 2012 documentary called “The Gatekeepers,” in which all six then-living former chiefs of the Shin Bet internal security agency agreed the occupation of the West Bank is not sustainable.
Last year, the deputy military chief, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, sparked controversy by appearing to compare the nationalist stirrings in Israel to 1930s Germany. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, an ex-military chief, accuses the government of planting “seeds of fascism.”
Meir Elran, who heads the program on the military and Israeli society at the Institute for National Security Studies, said the rift is “quite serious.” He said that politicians were undercutting the authority of the chief of staff, and they could raise questions among troops on how to handle certain situations in the field.
“The military enjoys traditionally a very high rate of support of the overall public,” said Elran, a retired brigadier general. “We do not want that to be diminished, and degraded.”