They are not just four generals. They are former chiefs of staff, and they are outraged by the fact that their intractable prime minister has appointed an inexperienced Moldavian as defense minister. Of this man it is said: “The closest he ever came to a bullet was a tennis ball whistling past his ear.” The amply decorated generals are soldiers of demonstrated heroism: this one held his fire till he saw the whites of the enemy’s eyes, that one took part in assassinating Abu Jihad on the shore of Tunisia. In stark contrast, the newly appointed defense minister immigrated, settled in the West Bank, and got rich; his heroism has been confined to stonewalling numerous police investigations for corruption. The contrast between Avigdor Lieberman and the group of military men (Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz and Ehud Barak) could hardly be stronger.
Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s choice of Lieberman could not have been worse. Ya’alon’s ouster rankled the generals and, as a result, they decided it was time to replace the government. The most vocal and qualified is, of course, Ehud Barak. He called the right-wing government “fascist” and pushed for a popular protest to overthrow it. When he blamed Netanyahu for losing his way, he conveniently forgot that during his time as defense minister, he worked in perfect harmony with and under Netanyahu. He even split the Labor Party in order to be in the government.
Netanyahu is under pressure. Lieberman’s appointment was meant to be just a prologue: Labor leader Isaac Herzog was to follow him into the right-wing government. That is why Netanyahu continues to hold important portfolios for the Labor Party. Nonetheless, Barak and Ya’alon upset the applecart, making Labor’s entry a suicidal act. The political system has reached a boiling point: Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi are establishing a new movement called “Pnima” (lit. “inside”); Ya’alon has said he would run for the premiership; former Environment Minister Avi Gabbay, who also resigned following Lieberman’s appointment, is waiting on the sidelines along with dozens of other politicians and activists, “victims of Bibi,” who seek revenge.
Ostensibly, toppling Netanyahu should not be difficult. When the army’s elite, the wealthy, the Supreme Court, the press, academics and intellectuals come together, one might think no force could withstand them. Netanyahu offended them when he placed Lieberman in charge of the army – this after putting Ayelet Shaked in charge of the legal system – and pitted Israel Today against Yediot Ahronot. (The former is a free daily newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson and biased in favor of Netanyahu.) Some even compare Netanyahu to Erdogan or Putin, leaders who eliminate opposition by all the means at their disposal. So it looked as though the slogan “Just not Bibi” might create the majority needed to carry out a revolution and put an end to Netanyahu’s rule. However, it’s not that simple. While the “nays” are very clear, the “yeas” are a lot more nebulous. Netanyahu’s right-wing ideology is consistent and mobilizes all shades of the Right. In contrast, Israel’s Left and Center lack ideological backbone. They are at odds with each other, and they flee from the label “leftist” as though from plague.
Just this week, Israel’s Channel 10 reported that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog reached understandings on a peace agreement through secret talks they conducted prior to the 2015 election. The agreement is not new and it mainly recycles understandings that Israeli governments reached in the past (and that have since gathered dust.) The main points are these: Israel withdraws from most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem; Israel retains sovereignty in the area of the Western Wall; Palestinian refugees receive financial compensation; counterterrorism efforts will be supervised by a joint body comprising representatives from Israel, Jordan and Palestine.
All this is set forth in a document of understanding between the two and, according to reports, it was specifically approved by Herzog. Discussions were held in the home of peace activist Gershon Baskin, and the purpose was obviously to give Herzog ammunition on the eve of the election. But wonder of wonders, when Abbas asked Herzog to present the understandings to the public, Herzog (according to Baskin) shelved the agreement, fearing to appear an “Arab lover.” In contrast, Netanyahu pledged that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch and publicly expressed his disgust with the Palestinians, thus securing himself another term. Herzog became a bad joke. The four generals made him even less relevant by ignoring him in their assault on Netanyahu.
Like Herzog, the generals are not ready to present an alternative political program. In the deeper past, Ya’alon attacked the Bar-Ilan speech in which Netanyahu accepted the principle of a two-state solution. The “no-partner” paradigm is registered in the name of Ehud Barak. Gantz and Ashkenazi make do with the establishment of a “social” movement. Yair Lapid (head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party) is focused as usual on cultivating his already inflated ego. So now the national sport is to dump on Bibi: his shady dealings with the French criminal Mimran; his relationship with media mogul Saul Alovitz; the inflated costs of his private villa in Caesarea; the quirks and whims of his wife Sarah. However, all these constitute a poor substitute for the lack of a concrete alternative political platform.
Worse, Netanyahu’s opponents see themselves as gatekeepers of a multitude of values: the value of democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press, the morality of the army, freedom of the arts, and so on. The problem is that when these values are voiced by former chiefs of staff, they sound trite and lack credibility.
Barak and Ya’alon talk about fascism and extremism, comparing Israel to abhorrent regimes in Europe in the 1930’s while totally ignoring the Israeli reality that they themselves helped shape. Messianism, racism, and disdain for democracy did not originate with Netanyahu. They are anchored in the body and soul of the State of Israel and have become part of its DNA. For 50 years, Israeli citizens have had their baptism under fire in the streets of Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah. At 18, Israeli army recruits learn how little life, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and the rule of law are worth when it comes to Palestinians. For 50 years, spearheaded by the generals, Israeli society has trampled these values in the name of safeguarding them.
Just this week, on the night between Monday and Tuesday, soldiers shot and killed 15 year-old Mahmoud Rafat Badran. They mistook him for a stone-thrower. According to the IDF code of conduct, his killing did not contradict army values. The values enshrined by the same four generals are exemplified when the army destroys the family homes of Palestinians who carried out terrorist attacks, and when water is kept from Palestinian towns, and when Palestinians are harassed at checkpoints.
There is little doubt that Netanyahu makes every possible mistake. He kowtows to right-wing extremists, isolates Israel from Europe, brawls with the US administration, rejects peace initiatives, and is losing political credibility. But he knows how to survive. The people responsible for his survival are precisely those who are now attacking him. They are a group of cowards. Although they have proven courage on the battlefield, they are cowards in the face of peace. The Left likes to argue that the nation is moving to the Right, but the truth is that people go where leaders lead.
Leadership is lacking in Israel today. The Right peddles illusions with a racist tinge, while the Left is afraid of its shadow. The only way to cope with the Right is to implement the values that Barak and Ya’alon talk about – but to implement them for Israelis and Palestinians equally. Those who deny the principle of equality become full partners in shoring up the apartheid regime, and their eloquent calls for a change of government will do nothing to alter the situation.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman