Last Wednesday a rather surreal exchange of recriminations took place between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, in the course of a Knesset debate on the topic “When will the war against poverty begin?”
“I demand in the name of a large public in Israel that you get on the podium and declare that Reuven Rivlin is your president, that ... Rivlin is an Israeli patriot, that whoever is participating in the incitement against him will not be pardoned,” Herzog stated. “I demand ... that you defend our president, because not far from here, at Zion Square, over 20 years ago, there was a crowd that yelled ‘with blood and fire we shall banish Rabin’ and at that time ...you didn’t hear and didn’t see. And today we hear exactly the same voices of human crowds yelling on the Facebook ... ‘Rubi Rivlin is not my president’ ... and participating in Facebook statuses calling to depose Rivlin and harm him physically... .”
Netanyahu replied: “From personal experience I tell you: there is criticism of leaders, there is criticism of me, as prime minister, there is criticism of the president, there is criticism of Knesset members.
I oppose any incitement, any violent discourse towards the president, towards any other leader [or] other public personality in the State of Israel. At the same time ... I shall continue to defend the right of each of us to express his opinion. That is how a democracy operates.
“But Member of Knesset Herzog, I have a request of you: I want you to get on this podium and condemn categorically the organization ‘Shovrim Shtika’ [NGO Breaking the Silence] that slanders IDF soldiers around the world, defames the Israel Defense Forces ... which causes the shackling of the right of the citizens of Israel and the soldiers of Israel to defend the State of Israel... .”
Herzog replied: “You do not condemn horrible incitement against [the first] citizen ... of the State of Israel, and he who was the speaker of the Knesset ... All the organizations of the third sector are part of a vibrant Israeli society ... This is what provides us with power as a strong and healthy democracy ... but also requires not to defame Israel among the nations and publicly, but to do so at home ...
I have no doubt that ... Shovrim Shtika, in certain situations, crossed borders, but one must also know how to enable people who fought on the front to say what they have to say, and to express themselves and sort out issues in the right places... .”
Amid heckling that didn’t enable him to complete his sentences, Herzog condemned the Im Tirzu video presenting four left-wing activists including Avner Gvaryahu from Breaking the Silence as shtulim (plants) – i.e. traitors. “Stop this filthy incitement campaign” he concluded.
The linking of President Rivlin and Breaking the Silence, which might appear surprising to the uninformed observer, was not accidental. So what’s the link between a right-wing, pro-Greater Israel yet liberal president, elected by a majority of 63 MKs in June 2014, and a human rights organization made up of former IDF soldiers and officers who wish to put an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and allegedly illegal and immoral acts performed by military personnel in the course of maintaining this occupation? Basically it is that various extreme right-wing organizations and personalities consider both to be illegitimate and dispensable (or even expendable).
The president because he considers himself to be the president of all Israelis, Jewish and Arab, right-wing and left-wing, religious and secular alike, and insists on speaking at gatherings of various political bents, even if their message or participants are not to his personal liking. Breaking the Silence because it believes that certain deeds performed by Israeli soldiers and officers, in accordance with or in breach of orders, should not be swept under the carpet.
In other words, said organizations and individuals want a president who represents only right-wing Jews like themselves, and civil organizations that follow a “my country right or wrong” line.
Of course, within the democratic discourse these positions may be expressed. However, the moment the expression of these opinions turns into incitement of the sort that could lead to acts of violence or even murder, it becomes dangerous, as the assassination of Rabin, alluded to by Herzog in the Knesset, demonstrated.
Therefore, even if the prime minister has reason to be dissatisfied with Rivlin as president (and even fearful, since constitutionally the president has the power, under certain circumstances, to call upon the head of another Knesset parliamentary group to form a new government), he must stop the incitement against him in unwavering terms, and not in the waffling manner in which he did it last week in the Knesset plenum.
The case of Breaking the Silence is more complex.
As long as the organization is concentrated on collecting personal evidence regarding cases in which there is suspicion of illegal and/or immoral acts, and on doing its utmost to ensure that false evidence is rejected (as it did during last year’s operation in Gaza when MK-to-be Oren Hazan tried to incriminate the organization by deliberately submitting false evidence under the name of Asaf Hazan), and bringing it to the attention of the IDF, its activities are both legitimate and welcome.
Former chief military prosecutor Lior Liebman stated in a TV interview last week that the IDF frequently followed up information submitted by Breaking the Silence. Nevertheless, six years ago former military advocate general Avichai Mandelblit (the current government secretary and possibly the next attorney general) complained, in a Haaretz interview, that unlike B’tzelem, which submitted useful information to the authorities, Breaking the Silence was problematic because it refused to hand over the identities of its witnesses.
However, the main problem with the group is its appearances abroad before foreign forums and individuals, which are frequently known to be hostile to Israel, or biased against it, whether due to anti-Semitism, uncritical sympathy for the Palestinian cause or plain ignorance of the historical facts. Anyone who ventures into activities abroad designed to advance peace and/or uncover wrongs must beware not to serve those whose goals are not the same as their own. The danger is that the baby could be thrown out with the bath water, and even if the baby (the State of Israel) is imperfect, and sometimes even ugly, it is the only one we have.
Furthermore, though Breaking the Silence is right, in my opinion, when it claims that the occupation itself is responsible for many illegal and immoral acts performed in the territories, it must separate between the struggle to end the occupation (which was an option back in the 1990s when the peace process with the Palestinians began, but is much less so today when extremist forces on both sides have strengthened due to the long period of stagnation in the peace process), and attempts to get the IDF to deal with specific cases of illegal and immoral acts committed by individual military personnel in the West Bank, or during military operations in Gaza.
However, none of this justifies the total vilification of Breaking the Silence.
All said and done, the fact that the government, and he who stands at its head, are collaborating with the campaign against the organization, and keeping a low and ambivalent profile with regard to the campaign against the president, is wrong, and dangerous to the Israeli democracy and to Israel’s image abroad. Breaking the Silence might be doing harm to the latter, but not as much as the incitement and inaction against it.
The writer is a political scientist and retired Knesset employee.