After verdict, Israeli military at odds with politicians

Supporters of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria wept after he was convicted of manslaughter by a military court, a verdict that set off condemnation among right-wing political leadership.
Ariel Schalit/Associated Press
Supporters of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria wept after he was convicted of manslaughter by a military court, a verdict that set off condemnation among right-wing political leadership.

JERUSALEM — 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 Sergeant 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 — aligning instead in subtle but noticeable ways with more liberal opposition forces.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

‘‘I think we are witnessing a very dangerous phenomenon where the division in Israeli society is trickling into the army,’’ retired major general 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.

Azaria was tried after a human rights worker filmed him fatally shooting a badly wounded Palestinian assailant in the West Bank in March. The assailant had already been shot after stabbing an Israeli soldier and was lying on the ground.

Lieutenant General 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 first defending the army, Netanyahu changed tack, even calling Azaria’s parents to offer support.