Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett continued to draw fire over the weekend for his remark on a Channel 2 TV talk show last Thursday in support of disobeying army orders to evacuate Jews from their homes should he be ordered to do so.
Over the weekend, in three 10-minute interviews to the major news channels, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that he would not include Bennett's party in the next coalition if Bennett supported the refusal of orders.
"Anyone who refuses [a command] won't be a minister in my government," Netanyahu said in his first television interview since the launch of the Likud election campaign. "This is a serious issue. Israel's existence is based on its army. I was quite surprised to hear that Naftali Bennett supports insubordination as a personal example. I heard Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, who was once the IDF chief of general staff, say the right thing: 'Israel's existence is based on the IDF. The existence of the IDF is based on following orders. There can be no insubordination. Not from this side or from that side.' No one who supports insubordination will serve in my government."
Netanyahu, who is expected to win the election and be tasked with assembling the next coalition, said that even though he had opposed the 2005 Gaza Strip disengagement, "it never occurred to me to speak about refusing orders." He said that any time someone on the Right supported insubordination, this legitimized refusal from the Left to serve in Judea and Samaria.
On Thursday, Bennett, an officer in the IDF reserves, told Channel 2's Nissim Mishal that he would rather go to jail than evacuate Jewish families from their homes. The remark elicited harsh responses from the Likud party, with Ya'alon accusing Bennett of undermining the IDF.
Bennett and the party of which he recently became leader pose a political threat to the ruling Likud party as they draw votes from the traditional Likud constituency, Likud campaign manager Gil Samsonov said Sunday. Recent polls predict that Habayit Hayehudi will grow in the coming elections to become the country's third-largest party, after Likud and Labor.
Bennett lashed out against his attackers on Saturday, accusing Likud of twisting his words for political gain. He told a press conference that he did not in fact call for insubordination. He said that he would not apologize for what he had said, and accused Netanyahu of causing damage to Israel's military power.
"I direct my comments to the thousands of young people and IDF soldiers who view me as a role model, and now because of political games and media spin, the unity of the IDF may be harmed,” Bennett said. “Thousands of youth may now mistakenly think that I support insubordination, and follow this misguided example. I never called for insubordination. Likud and the political establishment pounced on my remarks, twisted my words, and created the impression that I called for insubordination. To gain another quarter of a Knesset seat, they undermined the IDF's unity."
Bennett also urged Netanyahu to withdraw his "consent to a Palestinian state, unless he plans to uproot settlers from their homes again. Prime minister, sir, yes or no? Are you planning to uproot Jews from their homes again?"
He said a military command to uproot an Arab or Jewish community would constitute a grave violation of "the most basic human rights," and that he prayed with all his heart that such an order would never be given again. "But a soldier has to follow every order given by the army," he concluded.
Habayit Hayehudi also issued a statement, saying, "It would be best if the Likud displayed some courage and explicitly said whether it supports a Palestinian state and the evacuation of Jews from their homes."
The Strong Israel party of extreme nationalists Itamar Ben Gvir and Aryeh Eldad issued an immediate response: "A command to uproot Jews is an illegal and immoral command. It is unfortunate that Bennett had to back down from his comments due to media pressure."
The Likud-Yisrael Beytenu coalition issued a statement saying, "The public will have to decide who to believe, Bennett A or Bennett B. Bennett is now speaking feebly, after endless conversations with election consultants. Even after the meetings, he is still winking and legitimizing refusal."
Yair Shamir, a newcomer who is at the top of the Likud-Beytenu list, said, "His [Bennett’s] comments are unacceptable and they have no place in the public discourse. I hope that Bennett is not a wolf in sheep's clothing."
MK Eitan Cabel, the head of the Labor party response team and a serving IDF reservist, said, "No statement can turn back the clock and erase the horrible things Naftali Bennett said. A wolf in sheep's clothing, who hints at extreme and dangerous messages, is inconsistent with the interest of maintaining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."
Before Bennett held his press conference on Saturday, a number of politicians responded to his comments. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) said, "A public personality must not use his personal example to refuse an order. A reserve or conscripted soldier on patrol in Hebron, whether his views are on the Left or on the Right regarding our presence in Hebron, knows that he lives in a democracy, where policy is determined by the government and the Knesset, and he has to follow orders. To put one's personal outlook over the democratic principle is very serious. In a heterogeneous society like Israel, the democratic principle and maintenance of democratic rules are what holds us together. A public figure who serves as a role model can't talk about refusing orders. That would destroy the IDF, the power that keeps us here."
Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon said, "Bennett made an irresponsible statement that means allowing refusal [of orders]."
Labor party Chairwoman MK Shelly Yachimovich said, "Naftali Bennett's statement undermines the foundation of democracy. Our democracy can absorb refusal from the Left and the Right when it is done by individuals on the fringe, extremists. But when insubordination becomes mainstream and is touted by leadership, it is a danger to us as a society, as a people and as a country. IDF service is not a grab bag. As a politician, Bennett does have the right to fight for his views, but if his views are not adopted he must, as a citizen and as a soldier, obey the laws of the state. An apology is not enough. He must immediately repeal his words, as they can be taken as a call for civil disobedience."
Kadima head Shaul Mofaz said, "This evil spirit will not influence the IDF. There is no place in Israel for the refusal of military orders."
Tzipi Livni, head of Hatnuah ("The Movement"), said, "Naftali Bennett is from the extreme Right. The things he said are clear and their meaning is to violate the law."
In a separate incident, the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Vizhnitz community, Rabbi Yisrael Hagar, called on his students at the weekend to refuse the order to report for mandatory IDF service, adding that he would assume the legal responsibility for such action. Hagar, who heads one of the largest ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, joined other rabbis who recently made the same call.
In response, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, who has made ultra-Orthodox recruitment into his flagship campaign issue, said, "The rabbi of Vizhnitz's call, much like Bennett's outrageous remarks, constitute an obvious incitement against the IDF and encouragement to violate the law, jeopardizing Israeli democracy.”
“The prime minister declared that anyone who supports insubordination will not serve in his cabinet. It is time for him to add that those who refuse to enlist will also be barred from serving in government," Lapid said.
"The discourse that has emerged in recent days, suggesting that abiding by the law and following orders are a choice, is dangerous and will lead to a deterioration of the rule of law in Israel. The law is the law is the law and it applies to everyone. Yesh Atid has adopted the slogan 'equal service for all' and we will ensure that in the Knesset's next term, every 18-year-old will enlist to the military or to national service."