December 14, 2009
As Israel wrestled with a fateful decision on Iran's nuclear issue and war tensions building up around its borders, defense minister Ehud Barak went to war on the military-yeshiva "Hesder" contract, under which seminary students are conscripted - most volunteering for combat units - along with their studies.
Raising the specter of mutiny in the armed forces, Barak Sunday, Dec. 13, expelled the West Bank Mt. Bracha yeshiva from the contract when its dean, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, refused a summons to a hearing with the minister on charges of inciting student-soldiers to refuse orders affecting the status of Jewish settlements on conscientious grounds.
In refusing the minister's summons, Rabbi Melamed retorted he was not a civil service underling but the head of an academic-religious institution entitled to his opinion. Barak could have demanded his resignation, but opted instead to blacklist the entire institution.
Ideological and political divides on land-for-peace moves run deep in Israel - and not just among the 350,000 Jews living on the West Bank in government-approved towns and villages and unauthorized outposts.
Barak is head of the minority Labor party which strongly advocates these moves, while prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu leads the majority Likud party which is committed to a Land of Israel ideology.
By going too far in his showdown with the yeshiva principal, Barak now stands accused of exacerbating popular divisions and high-handed action to force West Bank communities and the Orthodox seminary network, as well as the armed forces and the government majority to toe his political line.
Right wing spokesmen stress the omission of Barak and the heads of the army to limit the academic freedoms of university professors to express their views, or summon them for hearings, even though some encourage students to dodge compulsory military service altogether, not just disobey certain orders on matters of conscience.
Binyamin is blamed for failing to intervene in the dispute, although it was touched off by the construction freeze orders he had circulated to West Bank communities last week. He may hope it will go away and not affect the stability of his government coalition. However tempers on both sides are rising.
In the past two months, six soldiers were given jail sentences and two others punished for demonstrating against potential government orders to evacuate settlements. That is the extent of the "mutiny" so far, but not the end of it unless a cool head starts pouring oil and promoting some sort of dialogue.
The armed forces are still struggling to heal scars left by the national controversy which flared over Ariel Sharon's order to forcefully evict 8,500 Israelis from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in 2005. This would be a fleeting nightmare compared with any future moves on the West Bank or Golan for a peace, which only Barak and his diminishing band of followers believes in. Nonetheless, the prime minister is giving them their head and allowing them to stir up trouble for no visible purpose.
In a recent lecture at Bar Ilan University, Rabbi Melamed spoke of "[political] corruption in the upper IDF command." He asked if they could be relied upon to sound the necessary alarums for prisoner swap deals, when he said:
"Military officers kowtow to the will of politicians, the mass media and dominant public views, which is why they failed to warn of the consequences of the Oslo accord, the retreat from Lebanon and the expulsion."He was referring to the eruption of Palestinian terror after the peace framework accord signed with the Palestinians in Oslo in 1993, the strengthening of Hizballah's grip on South Lebanon after Israel's retreat in 2006, and the expulsion of Jewish communities from Gaza, which resulted in Hamas' takeover of the territory and disastrous escalation of its missile offensive against southwestern Israel.
While Rabbi Melamed is seen by some as a right-wing extremist, it is worth mentioning that the independent a-political Winograd commission appointed to inquire into the failings of the 2006 Lebanon war, was just as critical, if not more, of the military high command. May Israelis of diverse political views - or none - feel the same way. Everyone had hoped that the dark Sharon era when citizens in and out of uniform were muzzled and forced into mindless obedience of the "high command" would never return.
But Ehud Barak has been allowed to revert to the high-handedness exhibited by Sharon, although he must realize that it goes sharply against the questioning nature of the average Israeli.
Maybe Netanyahu is giving him enough slack to hang himself, but in the process he is letting the country be dragged far too close to the abyss of disunity.