Former Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan’s next destination is politics, saying the Knesset chaos “only makes me hungrier.” Golan explains why Israel should not be afraid to launch a full-fledged invasion of Gaza if necessary.
Israel Hayom, 07.06.2019
Former GOC Northern Command and one-time Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan managed to make it through his entire army service without coffee. He drinks tea. But he knows how to make it, and prepares me a great cup using the espresso machine.
Now in his mid-50s, Golan still looks like he’s capable of taking an entire unit and leading it into an urban part of Gaza, because that is the only way of confronting the Hamas problem. There are four areas in which he is harshly critical of Israel: the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the way the IDF is handling the Hamas threat; the bureaucracy’s betrayal of Israel’s citizens; and what is taking place in the historical-national sphere.
Recently, Golan joined the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and took part in writing a document formulating a diplomatic-defense outlook that was presented to Netanyahu. But he is not limiting himself to statements; this week, it appeared that he would soon make a final decision to enter politics. He also sat down with Israel Hayom to discuss his views on politics and defense, and where they intersect.
Q: You told TV interviewer Ilana Dayan that you’re interested in public life. Is that happening?
“I’m jumping in, and I’m talking with a lot of people. I still haven’t made up my mind how I’ll do it, and what the right way to do it is.”
Q: And when you see the political mess in real time – does that whet your appetite?
“Yes. It only makes me ‘hungrier.’ I’m serious.”
Q: Your colleague, former GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo [who joined the Labor Party], is projecting a sense of complete confusion. He said he was learning about it.
“That’s Tal. He’s cautious. What is there to understand? There was an election, and in a functioning world, If things were normal [here], the two big parties would have set up a coalition that nothing could bring down. 70 MKs, a solid majority that would also represent the people of Israel. The ideological differences between the Likud and Blue and White are slim to none. In a functioning world, a centrist coalition would have been formed, neither Right nor Left, which would do things that most of the Israeli people want. Without the diversions from the haredim or the extreme Right.
“All that needed to happen was for the elected prime minister, still Benjamin Netanyahu, to say, ‘People, if I’m indicted, I promise to resign. Then we would have had a great coalition.”
Golan acknowledges: “I’m a rookie when it comes to political commentary. We talk about democracy, about the will of the people. The government should express that will, at least that’s how I see it. A bloc comprising of the Likud and Blue and White would number 70 [seats] is the best expression of the will of the people … I can guess what that sector wants and needs, and I can say with certainty that we can think about it together.”
“We could take the good people in the Likud, and there are good people there, and the good people in Blue and White – and there are those too – and establish a great government. Because there would be only two big parties, there would probably be fewer ministers, and we’d save a lot of money that will probably be wasted in the next government. Everyone in that bloc understands that we won’t make peace with the Palestinians by tomorrow. But they’re sober folks who won’t say, ‘Let’s attack Iran.’ Take it slow. That bloc could formulate economic, social, and educational policy.”
When asked to characterize the politics of today, Golan says, “politics has never been nice” and that “Bibi didn’t invent dirty tricks.”
Still, he says, Netanyahu’s political tactics are his primary complaint about the prime minister.
“He is establishing a politics of identity, which radicalizes itself. This is a type of politics that kills any ability to carry on a dialogue. This is a type of politics that deals less with content and more with images and labels. Netanyahu is to a large extent responsible for these past politics.”
Q: With the difference being under Netanyahu, Israel’s situation is better than it has ever been.
“If you look at Netanyahu’s decisions over his years in office, you won’t find too many bad ones. All in all, he’s a cautious man … His decisions are reasonable. But he is responsible for identity politics, which is eating at us all. Don’t brush it off as a global trend. There was an economic crisis in 2008, and we were smart enough then not to be part of the global trend. Why when it comes to politics shouldn’t we say to ourselves – let’s not be like the rest of the world?”
Three years ago, Golan addressed another major concern of his in a speech he gave on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day: the deteriorating relations between Netanyahu and the defense establishment after the affair of Elor Azaria, a former IDF soldier who was convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting an immobilized Palestinian terrorist in Hebron.
Q: It seems that after Avigdor Lieberman was appointed defense minister, the clashes between the defense establishment and the prime minister reached their peak. It was as if there was a need to topple Netanyahu.
“That didn’t happen.”
Q: You were speaking from the heart, without any outside calculations?
“There were no political considerations.”
Q: That was a disappointment – it was clear after the speech that you could not be appointed IDF chief of staff.
“What can I say? I ask myself, what did I say that awakened so much public discourse? It wasn’t the comparison to the Holocaust. I didn’t make the comparison. I cast doubt on the country’s leadership. I said that leaders must show responsibility. The IDF has seen cases of violation of [the principle of] purity of arms that were much worse than what Elor Azaria did. I remember myself as a youth, in 1978 – the Pinto affair. How can the two be compared?”
The Pinto affair Golan is referring to took place during Operation Litani, when Lt. Daniel Pinto murdered a few Lebanese prisoners and threw their bodies into a well. The defense establishment embraced him, and his marriage to a major general’s daughter helped matters. He was tried for his actions, and Judge Meir Shamgar assigned him a reduced sentence. One of the paratroop commanders, Yoav Hirsch, who reported the murders, was deemed a snitch by his comrades and became an outcast.
“When it comes to Elor Azaria, I’m talking about the national aspect of the case,” Golan explains. “It was clear that a wrongful action was carried out. With Mr. Pinto, who was the best of the best and an outstanding officer and good-looking, he did what he did and there was never a question about whether or not the IDF would investigate. It was obvious. But what happened with Azaria? Did we lose our minds? Why were all these politicians flocking to defend him? Netanyahu should have stood up and said, people, stop. Something happened, a soldier is suspected of acting illegally, and I’m asking you – drop it and let the IDF handle it in an orderly manner. What was he [Netanyahu] doing, calling Azaria’s father?”
Q: He also told Azaria’s father the IDF would handle the matter.
“There is a longing for Israel to return to normal. To stop with the righteousness on one hand and not be violent or condescending on the other.”
Golan says Azaria was given a fair trial. “By the way, he got the punishment he was expected to receive because ultimately, there’s no such charge as ‘intent to commit murder. He found himself in a situation, and there was a storm of emotion. He didn’t get up in the morning and say, today I’m going to kill someone,” Golan says.
“The way I see it, in the Azaria affair – like in others – the leadership did not conduct itself responsibly. An attack on morality is an attack on the justness of the path. When we go into areas under dispute, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in Lebanon or Nablus or Jabaliya, I want to know that when all the political debate is over, I’m doing the right thing, that there is a government that makes the decisions, which are based on an idea, which is moral and well-intentioned.
“Then I can ask things of a soldier who comes from a left-wing or right-wing or religious background. Here, there are no ‘backgrounds.’ Here, we represent the government. But the moment the army becomes ‘left-wing and defeatist,’ the courts become ‘destroyers of Israel’ and the chief justice of the Supreme Court is ‘not a Zionist’ – the day isn’t far off when a soldier will say he cannot serve here.”
“Identity politics is destroying good governance. It’s the most dangerous politics of all. Our politicians are playing with fire. We don’t live in surroundings in which we won’t encounter the toughest, most bitter issues sooner or later.”
Q: Are you saying that we’ll find ourselves in an all-out war and there will be rifts that we cannot overcome?
“It doesn’t need to be a full-scale war. A new outbreak of violence in Judea and Samaria is enough to require a lot of people to be sent in. If the polarization continues, the attitude of ‘not our problem,’ then I’m warning you…”
In the end, people are judged by their actions, and there are very few commanders who have operated with Golan’s level of efficiency to ensure the security of settlers in Judea and Samaria and against terrorism in general. His combat past has left a hole in his elbow, and two or three more in his other arm, below the shoulder. But the extreme Right has a tendency not to forget or learn, and the provocations against Golan when he was being considered for chief of staff apparently stem from an old grudge against him for having served as commander of the Judea and Samaria Brigade during the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in northern Samaria, as well as the evacuation of the Amona outpost in 2006.
“Public life is a life of defects. The policies I fought for my whole life and risked my life for weren’t always the most just or most correct,” Golan says.
“Let’s say that we could have left South Lebanon five years earlier. Until 1988, Iran wasn’t bothering anyone and was busy fighting an existential war against Iraq. After that, it got back on its feet, and the Taif Agreement [ending the civil war in Lebanon] was signed in 1989. Obviously, Israel’s withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon was a huge victory for Hezbollah, which influenced [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat. Arafat’s spurning Ehud Barak’s peace proposal at Camp David was absolutely related to the sense that Israeli society was very weak. He believed the nonsense that [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah was telling him. I think that if we were still in the security zone, Hezbollah would be stronger and would have graduated to missiles.”
According to Golan, the “turning point” came in 2003, when the Iranians realized that the Americans had crushed their main enemy, the Iraqis, and had no further reason to fear what was happening on their border.
“Then Iran started wondering about acquiring influence in Iraq after it already had Lebanon and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad,” who Golan says “admires” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Nasrallah.
Golan claims that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was a trigger for the Iranians to enter Syria.
“By the end of 2012, Iran had instructed Hezbollah to stop messing with the Jews. ‘The Shebaa Farms, Mount Dov – stop that nonsense and don’t open a new front against Israel. There is one goal – save Assad.’ That wasn’t related to the nuclear deal. Nasrallah didn’t want to go into Syria; he was really taking orders from the Iranians.”
Q: There was a view among top defense officials that Israel should make peace with Syria by offering them the Golan Heights, thereby removing them from the ‘axis of evil.’ Based on what you’re saying, that was never realistic.
“That’s nonsense, evil-spirited nonsense. I object to any compromise on the Golan Heights with every fiber of my being, not even an inch of it. Don’t confuse yourself with deals. The only thing we should be worried about is having to control a foreign population. There is no foreign population on the Golan, so Israel should stay there, full stop. The fact that Katzrin, in the last 15 years, has only reached a population of 15,000 is a historic missed opportunity.”
This week, Golan received a phone call from Labor party leader Avi Gabbay, inviting him to run for head of Labor.
“Personally, it’s a good fit for me,” Golan says, adding that he sees the mandatory three-year wait period for senior IDF commanders before they are allowed to enter politics as “corruption.”
“Why can a person take a senior position in the Treasury immediately after retiring from a Chinese firm, with no limitations, but army officers have to recuse themselves for three years? I think a year is fine. But three? Am I a criminal?”
Q: How do you explain that the law allows a prime minister to continue serving if under trial or indictment?
“There are norms. We already had a prime minister who went to prison. When he was indicted, he was no longer prime minister. He went home.”
Q: He went home because the political system didn’t want him to stay in power.
“It’s Bibi who said that a prime minister who is indicted should leave office, not me.”
Q: What rank did you hold when the Oslo Accords were signed?
“In 1993 I was the head of operations for the division. [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin would come to approve plans.”
Q: Did you have political opinions, or as an officer did you think you had to carry out orders as a professional?
“There were terrorist attacks. We asked why the peace process wasn’t being stopped. We didn’t understand. You’d say, why am I giving up Bethlehem when I see that in Nablus Arafat is arresting people and then letting them go two days later? It didn’t make sense. I was a lieutenant colonel at the time, and it was a time of vision – we were going to bring peace, so we had to say goodbye. Clear borders. From an emotional standpoint, it failed. When it comes to the exit from Gaza, while this might not be a popular opinion, it strengthened Israel’s security.”
When asked if at an earlier stage of his military career he ever imagined that the Palestinians in Gaza would be capable of firing rockets at most of Israel, Golan replied: “I think that the  disengagement from Gaza was very bad in the way we implemented it. But do I miss accompanying convoys carrying bombs to Gush Katif? Does anyone miss chasing rock-throwers at al-Shati [refugee camp]? In Jabaliya? In the first five years of the Second Intifada, 147 Israelis were killed in Gaza. Since 2005, 121 Israelis have been killed there, including all the soldiers who died in all military operations.”
Q: Like in the Yom Kippur War, people dismissed the Arabs’ engineering capabilities, and never thought they would be able to manufacture and shoot rockets. Do you see that as an existential threat?
“An existential threat – certainly not. There’s no need to exaggerate. The fact that we are fighting in Gaza badly and not doing what needs to be done is a different story. We had three opportunities to bring it to order, and we gave up. We’re afraid.”
Q: Of casualties? How many soldiers’ lives would an operation like that cost? 500?
“We’re afraid to fight. We’re afraid of casualties. It wouldn’t be 500 dead. We give the enemy too much credit. Fighting in Gaza doesn’t come without a cost – fighting in an urban setting is fighting on the ground. It needs to be done, because it’s what we need to do.”
Q: And what would follow a ground incursion?
“The equation is imaginary. There is a public aspect – the assumption is that if we go into Gaza, we’ll be bogged down there for years, is wrong.”
Q: So we could launch an incursion that would take X time, and then withdraw.
“Right. And I don’t understand what’s happening. The same thing happened before Operation Defensive Shield [in 2002] – we didn’t leave those Palestinian cities just so we could go back. But there are terrorists in those cities that led to terrorists blowing themselves up in our own cities, so we had to go back. We went in, and came back out. Today, they are the Palestinians’ responsibility.”
Q: What is happening to the IDF’s ground fighting abilities?
“First of all, incursions into Palestinian cities took place only after Israel endured an insufferable number of casualties [from terrorist attacks] and the event that changed everything was the Park Hotel bombing. Something else was that during the ongoing fighting, we gained a lot of experience. Villages, towns, after that, in cities and refugee camps. I took the Nour al-Shams camp in Tulkarem before Defensive Shield. Bit by bit, we built up our capabilities … when we fought correctly, we knew how to deliver painful blows to Hezbollah, as well. And these weren’t the IDF’s elite units. We are presenting ourselves with a threat. We’re glorifying the enemy.”
Q: Who is responsible for that? The IDF?
“The army is wrong. The professional responsibility rests with the IDF. If in Operation Protective Edge the chief of staff had said, we need to go into Gaza, I would have known how to do it. I think the government would have approved an incursion. It’s like going to the doctor –you don’t tell him what to do, because he’s the one who understands. The government can’t tell the army, ‘This is what you need to do.’ Because the army is the one that knows.
by Amnon Lord, Israel Hayom, 07.06.2019